Dark Side Magazine at FrightFest 2022 – James Whittington interviews Sophia Cacciola, co-writer and co-director of The Once and Future Smash
DS: Where did the idea for The Once and Future Smash come from?
SC: With the rise of horror conventions, there were a lot of interesting discussions on the internet about making sure to get memorabilia signed in the right order because some actors would refuse to sign something signed by another actor they had a rivalry or disagreement with. Our friend Neal Jones was telling us a story about how he was having trouble booking a particular actor as a guest on his Without Your Head podcast because they were upset that he had previously booked the other actor who played the same role in different parts of the same movie. We had already been kicking around the idea of a story of one of these rivalries, and when we told Neal, he loved the idea and thought he could get production access to the Mad Monster Party horror convention, which was really the big hurdle to telling that story. With the convention access in place and Neal’s long history of interviewing just about everyone in the horror community on the Without Your Head podcast, we were off.
DS: How did you and co-writer and co-director Michael J. Epstein work together, what was your process?
SC: Most of the projects I do are collaborations with Michael, so we’ve developed a very complementary set of skills and approaches to production and problem-solving. We started out playing together in bands, eventually moving over to movies, and getting married somewhere along the way. I tend to do more pre-production and he tends to do more post, but with this film, we were really all hands-on deck (with very few hands) all the way through. I’m the cinematographer on the film, but because we were shooting in so many uncontrolled situations at the convention, we both had to operate cameras and deal with sound recording. We also brought along our friend and collaborator Matt Stuertz as a third cam op to help with that part of the shoot. It was all very chaotic, so it really helped that we are so used to working together. Even when we couldn’t directly communicate, we knew we could count on each other to make the right choices. Michael has edited all of our previous features, but we wanted to bring in another perspective, so we brought in Aaron Barrocas to edit. Michael and I watched cuts and had a little push and pull about tone and what served the story and what didn’t. We worked together to deal with acquiring and making all of the b-roll and extra assets we needed to include to enhance the story as well.
DS: The casting of Michael St. Michaels and Bill Weeden is inspired, was this your plan all along?
SC: We absolutely couldn’t have made the movie without Michael and Bill. We knew Bill already from working with him on another project and Neal was friends with Michael through his podcast. So, we nervously reached out to the two of them and told them what we wanted to do. Thankfully, they both said yes immediately. We think they are both fantastic people and very funny. From our perspective, they are just similar enough in many ways and just different enough in many others to strike the balance we needed to tell this story in a form that we thought would be compelling.
DS: A.J. Cutler also gives a superb and very natural performance, how did he become involved?
SC: Just as with Bill and Michael, we really couldn’t have done the movie without A.J. We had met him working camera crew on another film and although we didn’t really know if he had any interest in being in front of a camera, we told him about the project and again, he thankfully said yes immediately. We really lucked out in that regard with getting interest for involvement from all three of them! We also really needed A.J. because he’s kind of the grounding voice of reason throughout most of the story, at least up until he also gets a little caught up in the madness.
DS: You’ve interviewed some very notable stars from the horror industry, who was the most fun to talk to?
SC: We were very nervous about how the interviews would go, but everyone who got involved was truly wonderful to work with. I think the important thing was that they really all loved Neal and trusted that if he was asking them if they wanted to be part of the project, it would be something they would ultimately be proud of. We live in California and Neal lives in Massachusetts (3000 miles / almost 5000 kilometers apart), so he was not there for most of the interviews. Everyone just implicitly trusted us to shoot their interviews because of Neal’s involvement though. It’s really hard to pick a “favorite” from the group because everyone brought their own energy and personality to it. I think Michael (Epstein) was most excited about Mark Patton because Nightmare 2 was his first R-rated horror film, and he always says watching that was what got him hooked on horror. For me, I had a really fun time flying out by myself for a day to interview Victor Miller. Just me, Victor, and his many Emmys! But we honestly had so much fun meeting everyone and really hope we get to work with them all again.
DS: Was there anyone you wanted to use but couldn’t get hold of?
SC: There were a few awesome people who wanted to be part of it, but it just didn’t work out because of geography or timing. We were really close to having Lisa Wilcox in the movie (we’re big Nightmare 4 fans), but it was a matter of physical distance and travel costs, so it didn’t work out. We also really wanted Tim Cappello, the famed Lost Boys sax player, to talk about the music in End Zone 2 (he’s a fan), but again, distance turned out to be an issue. There were quite a few others like that. I suspect if we weren’t in COVID times, we would have been able to work those interviews out. Travel has just been extra tricky these last few years. That said, we’re absolutely thrilled with the selection of people who are in the film.
DS: Did you also film at a real convention?
SC: Absolutely! Everything you see at the convention took place at Mad Monster Party in February 2020. They were extremely generous in giving us access to film there. All of the convention and hotel staff were aware of what we were doing and just gave us free rein. You can probably imagine all of the challenges with shooting and sound recording live events at a convention full of loud backgrounds! We had very little control over what was happening there, but we did our best to capture it all in three jam-packed days!
DS: There’s a lot of detail here especially the posters the piece features, any chance of a Blu-ray release so we can pause and appreciate them more fully?
SC: Thank you for noticing! There was an enormous amount of time and effort put into tracking down and creating materials. It’s definitely a little painful spending days searching for or working on something you know will be on screen for 3 seconds, but we thought it could really make the film fun to revisit. We also hope some of the small jokes and details will reward revisits to the film. We’re still very early in the process, as we actually only finished the movie a few weeks ago, and FrightFest is the world premiere, but we absolutely hope to put together a nice physical release. We have a lot of material that was ultimately cut from the film for time or flow, but that we think will be interesting for inclusion in bonus features. With luck, we’ll find a boutique label with an interest in films like this to put it out. Hey boutique labels, if you’re out there, you know where to find us!
DS: here’s some strong commentary on remakes here, are you against such things?
SC: Not at all! We just thought it was something amusing to poke fun at. Look, we’re huge horror fans and we get confused between The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Texas Chainsaw. And that’s not even to mention Leatherface and Leatherface, Halloween and Halloween, Scream and Scream, etc.
Whenever there’s a new sequel that arbitrarily disregards some number of other sequels, you can’t help but laugh! But we mean it all in good fun. We celebrate horror, and we’re not snobs at all about fandom and remakes and who liked something first. We just love to see other people respond to the genre the way we do!
DS: How much was scripted; it all seems so natural?
SC: Thank you! We had a script, but we were also very open to seizing opportunities. For example, we didn’t even know Mad Monster Party had a costume contest. We just took advantage of the situation. Really, you can only plan so much when you enter an uncontrolled environment! You also never know who might walk by with something to say! Aaron edited the movie as we went, so we saw what we extracted from the convention chaos and had the opportunity to use additional interviews or other material to fill in some areas we thought needed expansion or clarification. Because we shot the convention in February 2020, we were really stuck waiting around to gather the interviews and other materials for quite a long time. So, we had quite a bit of time to consider what to do, but we also had very few resources to do it!
DS: The movie riffs very much like The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, would you agree?
SC: Interesting! We’ve seen it, but I wouldn’t say it was a conscious influence. It definitely has the right vibe though, so that’s a fair comparison. In terms of style and tone, it was important to us that we bend and blend (no pun intended) reality, fiction, surrealism, and fantasy into the story. All documentaries are really just manipulation of reality. It’s quite hard to quantify the degree to which something is “truth.” But truth was far less important to us than entertainment and exploration of the themes. We wanted the story to connect and have meaning more than we wanted to worry about precise truths. Anyway, regardless of how truthful you wish to be when you make a documentary film, you bias everything by shaping it into a story and deciding what is included, what is excluded, and what moves to the front vs. what moves to the back. We just started from a place of knowing that we were not holding ourselves to anything particular.
DS: Talking of music, will the Theme from End Zone 2 get a physical release?
SC: Thanks for bringing that up! We are definitely fans of the songs and score in End Zone 2! We also had some amazing people work on various music for The Once and Future Smash, including Catherine Capozzi and Nick Zaino. Our dream is to find a boutique music label to release a vinyl version of the songs and score from End Zone 2 and The Once and Future Smash in one package of some kind. Again, if you’re out there, you know where to find us!
DS: Which was the most fun, making the doc or the End Zone 2 restoration piece?
SC: Each had a unique set of challenges, but I think there’s something really special about being able to bring a restoration of End Zone 2 to new audiences. Ultimately, we sort of think of the whole thing as one project, and we’re very much trying to bring it to festivals, and maybe home release, as a combined experience. We don’t want people to look at it just as two films. We hope they’ll see it as an opportunity to dive in and celebrate the story in multiple forms. We’ve really never done a project like this before, so we have no idea what to expect in terms of response. Even just talking to festivals has been interesting because we have to kind of explain that, yes, it’s two films, but we don’t really think of it that way. Some get it and maybe some don’t. I imagine the same will be true for audiences. We’re quite happy that FrightFest believed in it enough to program us.
DS: Will you be nervous when they play at FrightFest and will you be selling any blenders?
SC: We are definitely very nervous to see it with an audience for the first time, but whether it’s received well or it’s received badly, we know we took on something we’re passionate about and told the story the best we could with the resources we had. We’re happy with that, and now we can only hope that some of the audience gets it and finds it entertaining. We also definitely want to do some blender merchandising! The cost of bringing materials across the ocean is probably prohibitive, but don’t be surprised if you start seeing the cast signing blenders at a table at the next Mad Monster Party! It was great that while we were filming, people showed up to Mad Monster with blenders and with blender manuals to get signed by Michael and Bill. We didn’t really find a great place to include most of that in the film, but there are a few moments scattered. You can see a few signings sprinkled into the credits. That’s not staged or planned. They were just fans of the project.
DS: So, what are you working on at the moment?
SC: I just directed a segment of the BizarroLand anthology film, Fat Fleshy Fingers, which also stars Michael St. Michaels as a tomb raider infected with a talking parasitic worm. That should be going out to festivals soon. I’m also the cinematographer on a creature feature called Craving. Production on that will finish us this fall and hopefully be released next year. Otherwise, we’re mostly just going to take Smash and EZ2 around for the next year or so while we decide which feature project to move forward on next.
DS: Sophia Cacciola, thank you very much.