Joston Theney is the director and writer of the new horror film Axeman as well as the thriller, Adam K, which is currently in production. A native of Atlanta, he became a fan of horror when he discovered a relative’s collection of 80s horror flicks.
In this interview, novelist Sidney Williams and Joston talk about the chance meeting that led to Axeman, the process of creating a homage to 80s slashers, and why axes are so terrifying.
SW: Joston, from the trailer at least, it looks as if you’ve crafted a slasher film with just a little bit more to the story. Can you give us just a brief synopsis of what the tale is about?
JT: Sure, sure, sure. … Axeman—you’re right there’s just a little bit more to it than just being a straightforward slasher. It’s number one an homage to 80s slashers. In and of itself it has all of the prerequisite stereotypes that are typically found in 80s slasher films, but what we tried to do also is make all of those stereotypes very, very human and very familiar, not just in a sense of things you’ve seen on the surface but make it more familiar to you in terms of making the characters more real and more grounded and giving them more gravitas.
We also have the prerequisite group of friends who show up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. They sit around and they discuss these urban legends, and one of them turns out to be very, very true, which is the tale of the Axeman of Cutter’s Creek, which is part of the folklore of the Big Bear community. We also have a group of bank robbers who’ve descended on the cabin as their getaway from the heat of the cops as well as people they double crossed to steal the money. We use that money as a backdrop to talk about humanity and how money changes people and it changes people’s motivations. And so you have all of that swirling together as people are being hacked to pieces.
SW: So, a little bit richer tale than what we might call some of the classic ‘80s slashers. I understand you found a relative’s DVD collection and that’s where you really began to experience some of those early slashers. What were some of the ones that chilled you?
JW: Believe it or not the first film I really recall is Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn. I think, for the way that my mind works, it was a great entry into ‘80s horror because it was something that had a good mix of things that were very, very terrifying. Things that were just unbelievably hilarious and things where they mixed comedy and creepiness together so, so effectively that when I started to venture out into other different types of ‘80s horror it just gave me a great foundation.
Other films that inspired me were The Mutilator, The Kindred and of course Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, andPhantasm and the different zombie movies that were out. Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, all those films. I think of all those films, Evil Dead II was the film that laid the foundation for my love of ‘80s horror.
SW: Sam Raimi-flavored horror to be certain. As we might say, a cut above some of the other films of the ‘80s. Speaking of classics old and new, you have some familiar faces in your film. Tell us, who are regular horror viewers going to recognize in Axeman?
JT: I would say Tiffany Shepis, Brinke Stevens, Elissa Dowling, Arielle Brachfeld. If you’re an NBA fan, Scot Pollard (who plays the Axeman). Ray Trickitt, who was in Lord of the Rings, you’ll catch him in the role of Paulie in the film. It was one of those films where a lot of people came together just for the love of the type of film we were making, and they just really connected to the material.
I’m sorry. I almost forgot, Erin Marie Hogan is in it, and Jamie Bernadette also. All of those guys who’ve been working so much in the horror genre brought so much to the table on this particular project and made it rock.
SW: Was it fun working with scream queens you’d seen in some of the older films?
JT: Yeah, it was incredibly fun. Tiffany Shepis has been a long time friend of mine. I’ve known her since, oh man, since maybe ’05, ’06. We worked on a project together back then and stayed in contact and stayed friends and so did Brinke and I.
Actually Tiffany introduced me to Elissa, so I’ve known them for years. It was a pleasure to get to work with all three of them at one time. I think it was the first project all three of them had worked on together. It was a great time, working with Erin Marie Hogan and Jamie Bernadette. It was a dream. Most people get to work with them individually on something, but to work with all of them on the same project, it was truly special and it meant a lot. I think it was the first time we’ve had that many scream queens in one movie.
SW: The poster art is really cool, and I guess it’s the DVD cover as well. Very iconic looking. What is it about axes. Axes are very functional tools, but what is it that makes an axe so scary?
JT: I think it’s because, especially the way it’s used in this film, but I’ll go with the axe in and of itself as this blunt instrument that is also quite precise. You know that whatever happens, when it hits you it’s doing major damage.
There is no escaping that fact. The way that we use it in this film, it’s given to a maniac who, even without the axe, he’s this imposing, towering, powerful, agile figure. You’re not going to get away. Even if you get the axe away from him, you’re not getting away. Somebody asked me one time: “How would he stack up against any other villain in horror films?”
I said: “Let me tell you, if you took every villain and put them in a steel cage with this guy, he’s the only one walking out.”
SW: You mentioned the urban legend of the story. Is he inspired by any particular or any real Big Bear urban legend or is he inspired just by the totality of urban legends?
JT: I think he’s more the totality of urban legends. It was piecing together many different things I’ve heard growing up. I think for the most part, most kids went to camp. I did. It just came from an amalgam of stories that I heard growing up, things that I heard as I was writing the script. I just pieced different things together and just said: “You know what? This is the perfect story.” Because it gives you so much information, but it leaves so much room for interpretation that with each film—it’s meant to be a trilogy—with each film you learn new information. It makes that initial information you received so much more fun.
SW: Fun, fun. It’s definitely fun when we get things that build like that.
Definitely death scenes are integral to slasher films. How much emphasis did you place on each death, and who did the effects?
JT: I call her Super Suzi Hale, who was responsible for coming up with our effects. The kills were, whoo, they were pretty graphic in nature. Very 80s inspired, very gory type deaths, very brutal type deaths. We had one that was a very black comedy type death that involved a very iconic scream queen.
What we tried to do was make sure every death told a different story and make sure the way that the person got to the death was significant. We wanted to give each lover of 80s film something that was specific to something this type of audience might like.
I think everybody’s going to have their own favorite kill in this particular film, and Super Suzi Hale was exceptional at helping me come up with a lot of different ways of accomplishing that. Her knowledge of make-up was just incredible. What she was able to do with the time constraints and limited budget was really amazing, truly amazing.
SW: Sounds exciting on both sides of the camera. The fans will get something, and probably was a lot of fun to create.
How did the film come about? Did it start with a spec that you had always wanted to shoot or was there an opportunity to do a horror film and this is the one that came about? How did the deals fall into place?
JT: Well, what started out, I’ve been working with a gentleman who works as a stunt coordinator in very large Hollywood films. He came to me and said, “Hey, I’m at this production company, and they want me to help produce a horror flick. I told them that you come up with stuff really quickly and can bang out a script in 10 days.
I said: “Let’s set it up.”
We sat down, and we all spitballed ideas. That idea was the genesis of Axeman. The problem was that the production company didn’t really understand 80s slashers. They didn’t really understand what I was doing in the script. They said, “That seems kind of old school and maybe we should change the direction of it.”
I said: “No, that’s the whole point, that it’s an homage to 80s films.” What we decided after a few rewrites was to part ways on this particular project and work on something else together.
That script just kind of sat around until I was at a medical convention, and I ran into Christopher Otiko, the executive producer of Axeman.
He said: “You know what, I don’t want to hear anything about medicine. I talk about this stuff all day. Let’s talk about movies. I want to write and produce a horror film, and not a new thing. I want to do something old school.”
I said: “Get outta here, man. I was just setting up a project over here, and I think it’s something you might want to work with me on.”
He saw the script. He liked it, and it was right for his production company, and we sat down and just went through it. What his contribution was, he knew what he wanted for entertainment value to make sure audiences were being entertained every moment throughout the film. What he did was he went through and questioned every single moment.
He said: “Is this really funny? Is this really scary? Is this really dramatic? Is this purposeful to what we’re trying to accomplish? He made it a tighter, more cohesive story. That’s pretty much how we got here. We went into production soon after. While in production, he agreed he wanted to do the entire trilogy. It was just a matter of when. When we finished with distribution, he went ahead and green lit 2 and 3.
SW: Cool, cool. I guess it proves you never really know where the creative confluence is going to occur. A medical convention, as you say, not really where you think you’re going to go to plot a film or horror story.
JT: Not at all.
For more about Axeman and where to view it, check out the Axeman’s official Facebook page.