Gavin Schmitt Interviews Director Mark Pavia
Mark Pavia is best known for directing “The Night Flier”, starring Miguel Ferrer, back in 1997. Since then he hasn’t been seen very often, but not because he disappeared or gave up on horror. Mark’s been battling through development hell on any number of projects: for a time he was attached to the remakes both of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Dawn of the Dead”, and he wrote an early treatment of Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train”. He even collaborated with Stephen King on a “Night Flier” sequel in 2005, though this project never took off.
More recently, he was attached to another King project called “Stephen King’s The Reaper’s Image”, and it was to feature adaptations of these four King stories: The Reaper’s Image, The Monkey, N, and Mile 81. Hopefully this may someday see the light of day.
Fans (myself included) have been waiting for his next project, and finally one has come! Debuting on the Chiller channel on June 3rd is “Fender Bender”, a retro slasher film starring Makenzie Vega (“Saw”) and Bill Sage (“American Psycho”). I spoke with Mark in May 2016 about his past and present work.
GS: You grew up in the suburbs of Chicago… what was it like being a movie lover in the Midwest?
MP: I was born in Elmhurst, Illinois, but you know how we tend to think of our high school years as forming our hometown? So I actually consider Lockport, Illinois my home, which is right outside of Joliet. I was an hour out of Chicago and made my first film while I was very young. When you tell people you want to be a movie director, and you live in a small town, people look at you like you’re from Mars. Because, who does that? But I loved films my whole life and never even thought about it, it was just something I gravitated towards. So I made some small films in high school and ended up getting a scholarship to Columbia College in Chicago and was able to attend film school.
Being a Midwesterner, you probably see this, but I think that Midwestern values end up working their way into the films. It’s just how we were raised. We love making normal, innocent characters who just happen to find themselves in trouble.
GS: One thing your film “The Night Flier” is known for is its connection to the larger King world. Whose idea was that?
MP: Well, I co-wrote the script with my writing partner, Jack O’Donnell, and that was our doing. When I take on a project like that, I really want to blend my vision faithfully with the source material. So, I fused my sensibilities with those of Stephen King.
Now, let’s back up a moment. Stephen King actually discovered me, right out of film school. He saw a short zombie film I directed called “Drag”. Interestingly enough, our cinematographer on that was Mauro Fiore, who went on to win the Oscar for “Avatar”. But this was in film school, so none of us were anybody yet. Stephen King loved the short and contacted me. Him and producer Richard Rubinstein were working together at the time, and “The Night Flier” was a project they had in development. Stephen said to Richard, “Pavia would be great for this.”
Richard apparently agreed, because they called me and flew me out about two weeks later. They asked if I knew the “Night Flier” story, and I’m a huge Stephen King fanatic, so of course I know the story. I had read it before. They asked me to pitch my vision to them, and I didn’t even know what “pitch” was, other than a baseball term. What the hell is that? So I actually asked, “Pitch?” And they said, “Tell us how you’d make the movie.” “Oh, right. Cool.” So I met Stephen King, Richard Rubinstein, and we talked for a couple hours and I told them how I would make the film. They hired me on the spot.
Jack and I went back and worked on the script, going through six drafts really quickly. I was a huge Stephen King fan, I still am, and now I consider him my friend. But back then I was a just a fan, and I wanted to make it true to his world. Do you know that feeling you get from a Stephen King novel? That essence that makes it a King story? I wanted to try my hardest to translate that feeling to film. I hope I succeeded, and I think we have. The love for the film people have seems to have grown over the years.
Getting back to the question, of course I wanted to infuse the story with anything “King” that I could. I didn’t want to go over the top, but we made sure to include the newspaper clippings and headlines that are mounted on the wall. Most of them reference other Stephen King stories. But the overall tone of the film, I think, feels like a Stephen King story. I mean, part of the reason is because it is. But I also really respect the material and worked hard to make it true to King. Incidentally, he was very happy with how it turned out.
GS: I’m sure you’re not allowed to answer this, but are there any discussions of a blu-ray for “Night Flier”?
MP: There’s been a lot of interest in re-issuing “Night Flier”, and everyone associated with the movie is aware of that. But all I can say is “Stay Tuned”.
GS: What was the spark for “Fender Bender” – did Chiller or Scream contact you, or did you approach them?
MP: I came up with the concept, and it’s sort of funny how. I was just driving around with my buddy in Los Angeles and we got in a small accident. No big deal, the cops didn’t have to be called. My friend who was driving got out, handled it, and returned to the car. I asked him, “What did you do back there?” He said, “I did what you’re supposed to do at a fender bender. We exchanged information.” I pressed him for more, asking, “What did you give him?” He was a bit irritated and said, “You know. My name, my phone number, my driver’s license. Everything, just like you’re supposed to do.” So I leaned over with a sly smile and said, “What if he hit you on purpose to get your information? Now he knows where you live and can come kill you tonight.” He looked at me and said, “Shut up! You’re freaking me out!”
At that moment, I knew I had a good idea, probably the best idea I’ve had for a horror film in a long, long time. Because fender benders are so universal. We’ve all had one, and it puts us in a situation where we’re giving out personal information to complete strangers. I went home and wrote it very, very quickly. Coincidentally, Scream! Factory was preparing to start making original movies. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were. They’re great at putting out these classic blu-rays and were now thinking about creating new content. They were looking for a project, and we brought them “Fender Bender”. They loved it instantly because they understood it. It’s a retro-slasher, a love letter to films like “My Bloody Valentine”. And they got it, because these are the films they’re working with day in and day out. So the stars aligned. Things came together very quickly, and soon I was shooting in New Mexico.
But that’s the way things happen, man. It’s hard to make any movie in Hollywood, as you know, but this just came together. Scream loved the material and they already knew who I was and were huge fans of “The Night Flier”. I also happen to be huge fans of theirs. I own, just as you probably do, a large number of their blu-rays. It’s incredible. No lie, I put one in practically every night. We came together, made this movie, and we’re all very pleased, very happy with the result.
GS: When writing, were there any horror or slasher touchstones you were working with?
MP: As a horror fan, we grew up on these movies, right? I think of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as the prototypical slasher film. Of course, there were other slashers before Carpenter came along: “Psycho”, “Peeping Tom”, “Black Christmas”, and so on. But the original “Halloween”, along with “Friday the 13th”, really started the heyday of the slasher genre. These movies were opening practically every week in the 1980s, with another slasher in the theater each Friday. And I loved it. They terrified me, but I loved it. I’d cut out the ads from the newspaper and tape them on my wall, excited for what new horror film would be coming out that week. I would clap and cheer when advertisements for the new films came on TV. I especially liked the “classic style” filmmaking, because I really related to it. John Carpenter was very good at that. As a young filmmaker, I had three huge influences in my life: Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Those three guys taught me everything I know about filmmaking.
Then “Fender Bender” (affiliate link) comes along and I have the opportunity to write my love letter to this classic subgenre, the slasher film. I just wanted to make something that was classic in nature and visually explored the environment with few cuts and long master shots. The music had to be an electronic score. I wanted to touch on the classic tropes of the slasher film, but still tell a modern story of a girl in New Mexico. A classic feel, but in a new direction. And also, I was sort of trying to make it timeless. Obviously with the texting and Facetiming it is set in the modern day, but I wanted the clothes to be timeless to add to the classic feel. At least, that’s my hope.
GS: Being the writer, director and producer, I assume you had a great deal of control over “Fender Bender”. Were you limited in any way from what you wanted to do because of the medium?
MP: As far as censorship? Not at all, actually. We made the movie as though it was a feature film, even though we knew it was premiering on Chiller. We actually had this very conversation with the other producers, and they said that other than really graphic nudity, we were free to do what we wanted. I didn’t have any graphic nudity anyway, so that didn’t affect me. There was nothing they “killed” or cut from the final picture. The killings are still pretty graphic. I don’t know that they’re gory, but I think that they’re shocking. I was using the gore as punctuation. When it hits, it hits hard, but it’s not a gory movie. But they didn’t tell me I had to remove anything.
GS: Although the killer (“The Driver”) has a mask, he is not faceless like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Why does he wear the mask?
MP: It’s interesting as far as the costume goes. I was working with Bill Sage, who plays the Driver, and I told him that in the scenes where he is talking with Hilary – played by the incredible Makenzie Vega – the white sneakers and blue jeans were the killer’s costume. But when he gets into his killing outfit, that’s not his costume – that’s his everyday persona. Bill loved that suggestion, took it and ran with it. As far as that outfit is concerned, I saw it as an extension of his car. That’s why it’s black leather, because his car has black leather interior. His eyes are chrome headlights. The mouth is a grill. If you look close, you’ll see his weapon is a car door handle, and the knife pops out when he pushes the door handle button. So when he exits his car, he is still his car. That’s how I conceived him, with the person and the car as one entity. He’s scary. Bill Sage wore the costume, that’s not a double, and people on set were afraid to be around him. So that was satisfying.
GS: The movie tech geeks might notice that this is the first cinematographer job for Tyler Lee Cushing… how did he get involved?
MP: Tyler is amazing. He was recommended by Carl Lucas and Josh Bunting, other producers on the picture, who work out of New Mexico. Carl had worked with Tyler before and thought we should meet. He felt we would gel and that Tyler would get what I was trying to do. Carl said that Tyler was an incredibly talented newcomer. And I love giving people an opportunity, because I was given such a great opportunity years ago. It’s important and it’s the right thing to do. I looked at Tyler’s reel, I loved it, and we got along beautifully. Tyler is an incredibly smart, intuitive DP, but he’s also really chill. He’s really laid back, whereas I’m always bouncing off the walls. He never said no. I’m the sort of director who wants control of the visuals, and he was able to give me that. He loved the classic vibe of the film, and was a natural at working with the master shots, cutting in to close-ups, all the traditional methods. Today, fewer movies are made in the classic style. They rely on new technology and the filmmakers are “running and gunning” because of the lower budgets. I get it, I understand why they do what they do. But I just want to return to the classic style. Which actually makes the approach something fresh, because you don’t see it as much in horror and genre pictures. Anyway, that’s where Tyler came from. We had an amazing experience and I’m sure we’ll be working together again.
GS: Mark, thank you so much for your time. I love what you’re doing, and it’s great to hear the fan inside you is alive and well.
MP: Thank you, Gavin. I do what I do for fans like you.