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The Cutting Room: Elijah Wood, Alison Pill & Leigh Whannell on “COOTIES”

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Welcome to THE CUTTING ROOM, a new weekly column on FANGORIA.com that highlights the stories that most share DNA of our print counterpart. Rather than just feature the articles and interviews that didn’t make the cut, this column is dedicated to providing a greater lifeline between FANGORIA Magazine and FANGORIA.com.

It’s been a long road for COOTIES, Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott’s horror comedy about a school under siege by prepubescent zombies. Produced by SpectreVision and written by INSIDIOUS mastermind Leigh Whannell and GLEE writer Ian Brennan, COOTIES has torn through the fright festival circuit over the past two years before finally reaching VOD and select theaters today from Lionsgate Premiere.

But the long road is a road surprisingly worth the trip, with there being no greater champion for the film than the stars of the project itself. Back at the prestigious Stanley Film Festival in May, FANGORIA sat down with Elijah Wood, Alison Pill and Leigh Whannell (who also steals scenes on-screen as well) to talk about COOTIES, improv comedy and if COOTIES will catch on with the horror crowd…

FANGORIA:  Each of you have approached COOTIES from different eyes; from each of your perspectives what was the most unique aspects of your experience on COOTIES?  

ELIJAH WOOD: That is a broad question. I think, for us ,the thing all along was trying to find the balance and tone. Once we decided it was a comedy, I think it was important, especially on the producing side, to find that balance to find the horror and comedy.  We wanted the horror to be on the same level as the comedy because often times in horror comedy, it tends to swing one way or another. That was the important thing: just trying to find the balance and tone constantly.  

I remember a conversation we had a couple days into it when [Leigh Whannell] was like, “I’m the horror guy so I am going to worry about the comedy and you can worry about the horror.”  I think we were always just checking those levels, and that was a unique experience.

LEIGH WHANNELL: For me, it was unique to be on the set of something that was even a bit funny.  I mean, having done so many horror films, it was such an amazing experience to be surrounded by comedy people, because I realized they are just like that off camera. They are just constantly doing bits, you know? I was cracking up so much, especially with Jack McBrayer and Rainn Wilson. They are just never off and that was just fun. I never been around that many comedy people.

I remember one time,  I was writing on my phone on the notepad, and I was writing down movie ideas. So I was sitting there writing and Rainn was like, “What are you writing?” and I was like, “I put all these movies ideas down, just one-sentence loglines.” So I showed it to him and he was reading through it stonefaced. Then he goes, “I have a movie idea,” and I am like “Really?” So he wrote it down and showed it to me and it said “I fuck your wife.” [all laugh] It was just like that all the time.

ALISON PILL: The most brilliant movie idea of all time.

WHANNELL: We still have to shoot that… Yeah, that was an interesting experience.  

FANGORIA: Alison, as an actress who hadn’t previously really done a horror feature, what was your COOTIES experience like?

PILL: I had done a horror short film years ago in Toronto, but guys, I have a great scream. Let’s be real here.  It has been a dream for me, and it’s so  fun. I mean, scared acting, all of it was really fun to do.  

WHANNELL: Her scream is great. If you put her in the trunk of my car, you can hear her from inside the house. It was amazing!

PILL: I also think because it was a comedy, I was in the same boat as Leigh where we were all there for the right reasons. We were there to have fun and make a funny movie as the best as we possibly can. We were hanging out in this school in August and we all got to shoot a movie in Los Angeles which is exciting in and of itself. Knowing that everyone was as into it as everybody else, there were no sad sacks or party poopers in that scenario. Plus, Leigh was just like writing bits all the time.

WHANNELL:  And the actors would just improv as well.  

PILL: I think the scene between Rainn and Elijah in the Music Room had 40 minutes of Rainn being mean to [him]. It was such a pleasure to see that!

WHANNELL: It really was. Listing off things that I forgotten about, not only was the shoot in the middle of summer but [the school] was five minutes from my house. I couldn’t believe it.  I mean, like Alison said, it is very unique to shoot in L.A. because not as many things shoot in L.A. anymore.  But to be that close to home, it was just so fun.  

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FANGORIA: There’s a nice balance of improv and written set-up/payoff humor in the film. With that in mind, was there anything about the characters that you specifically wanted to bring that was not in the script?

PILL: I don’t improvise.  I only went with the script but that’s because the movie was fully realized in this wonderful way. I think that the fact that, despite their oddities and insanity, there is such love for each and everyone of them within the script of their struggles. Everyone is earnest. Even sweet Doug, who is disappointed that is education on sexual matters has not gone over well. [laughs] Everyone wants to do good in this. I think working within that frame was really fun, so I let the other people make the jokes.

WOOD: Yeah, there were scenes that live themselves to that more than others. Once we get into the second act of the film, COOTIES becomes a little more active and constructive around the major set pieces. All the improv came in introductory scenes, like the early scene of all of us in the teacher’s lounge and the scene when we all get to the music room. Those are big open spaces which a lot of it is more comedic actors, who are very good at improv, took advantage of that.  

PILL: What a gift it was to be able to shoot in sequence, too!  Most of it was shot in sequence, and you never get to do that.  All of that stuff with introduction in the teacher’s lounge was on our first day, then we moved up to the music room. They really kept in as much as possible within the timeline.  It’s so rare and I think lends itself to the chemistry and the availability of the improv, but by the end, it’s like, “Oh God, we still have to make our day!” [all laugh]

WHANNELL: I’m a big fan of films where a group of people spend the set amount of time in one location, like THE THING or THE BREAKFAST CLUB; you can almost say that both of those films influence COOTIES. You got the horror element. I really love the scene in THE BREAKFAST CLUB where they all really get to know each other and are confessing. We sort of do our own version of that with the teachers in the scene where all hope is lost, so I really had a lot of fun playing around with those conventions. So you come to set and put on the same clothes everyday, because it is all happening in sequence, but it was just fun to shoot a film from that world where a bunch of people are in this place for one night and one day. It was awesome.    

FANGORIA: COOTIES is really an audience picture. With film going to VOD and limited theaters, do you guys think there will be life for COOTIES as a midnight movie?

PILL: COOTIES is so fun with a group of people. It really is legitimately fun when you’re cheering for a child to get beaten up. [laughs]

WHANNELL: We feel proud that the film plays so well. We went in and met with Lionsgate, they are doing it day-and-date, so they’re releasing it into theaters and as well as VOD, and they really are excited about it. I think in today’s world, you are grappling with this new systems of films. Fewer and fewer movies are being released in theaters, because it is so expensive;  it is becoming just THE AVENGERS, while everything else in the middle ground is going On-Demand.

VOD, iTunes and Netflix are becoming such great places to discover movies and all the independent movies I have seen over the last few years have been at home.  It seems that my TV has been replaced by a local independent theaters. In the 9’0s I would go every weekend to see films like NAKED LUNCH and SWINGERS and all of  these indie movies. Now if NAKED LUNCH came out, I’d probably be able to see it at home. But I think that is an awesome thing for indie filmmakers.

WOOD: Yeah, because the only places that were playing those movies in the ‘90s were New York and L.A. If you were in the midwest, you were fucked. You couldn’t see those films or foreign films or documentaries.

WHANNELL: That is a brilliant point; back then, geography limited you. If you were in a small town, you didn’t get an opportunity to see NAKED LUNCH or one of these crazy movies. You had to dream of one day going to New York. What I love is that now the kid who lives in the suburbs in Nebraska can pull up the same movies that New Yorkers see. It sort of democratizes it, which is awesome. But we also met with Lionsgate and their marketing people and realized that a theatrical release is not an afterthought for them. They really do want to get people out there.  

We are really going to promote the hell out of this film. Alison doesn’t know this yet. We’ve done all these personal appearances for the film. We’ve all become emotionally invested in the film so we want to get out there and sell it and actually do appearances for COOTIES.

But COOTIES is a good communal film.  It is something fun to watch with an audience.  We want to try to make the theatrical experience of the film fun, and I think films like IT FOLLOWS shows that you can get a good cinematic release. But it is also a perfect film that is going to be primarily on demand.

COOTIES is currently in select theaters and on VOD platforms via Lionsgate Premiere. Special Thanks to FANGORIA’s Carly Knaszak for her assistance on this interview.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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