Out filmmaker David DeCoteau has been directing movies for about 30 years. From “The Brotherhood” and “Voodoo Academy” series to the “666” and “1313” horror franchises, he has directed more than 100 pictures including the gay classic “Leather Jacket Love Story.” In the last 28 months, DeCoteau has shot 28 films.
His most recent feature, “Knock ‘em Dead,” is one of his best. A comedy-thriller about three aging actresses—Jenny (Rae Dawn Chong), Darien (Debra Wilson) and Alex (Anne-Marie Johnson)—reuniting and fighting as they prepare to make a sequel to their hit film from ten years ago. Written by Barry Sandler (who wrote “Making Love,” “Crimes of Passion,” and “The Mirror Crack’d”) the film is witty and bitchy in equal measure.
Mirror spoke with DeCoteau about “Knock ‘em Dead” to get his thoughts on the film and the film industry.
You mix comedy and horror in “Knock ‘em Dead.” What is the appeal of genre filmmaking?
I grew up with genre movies and I stick with what I like and know. Working in the genres, like “The Brotherhood” and “Puppet Master,” I have the opportunity to discover new young talent like my mentor Roger Corman did in the 1950s and 1960s. Films like “Knock ‘em Dead” are a good example of how to make a movie in one week. The script attracted both the cast and me.
The film is a satire of moviemaking. What are your observations on the industry?
I think it’s very tough on women. There are so many highs and lows that it’s tough to have consistent career trajectory. Some of the greatest living actresses are working in TV, as are some of our greatest directors. TV is now a go-to place for writers/directors/talent to do quality work. I work so much because I make inexpensive movies not look so cheap, and I have enough of a following that people continue to buy them. Anyone can make a cheap movie, but most folks don’t know how to sell one. You have to find the right material, talent and the ability to make it happen in front of the camera and sell the movie.
Jenny has the line, “Showbiz ain’t for pussies!” What have been some of the hardest things for you to overcome in the film industry?
I don’t know any industry where there are so many people for so few jobs. You have to have determination, believe in yourself, take highs and lows and not give up. You have to have the tenacity to make it happen.
You compiled an incredible cast for Knock ‘em Dead. How did you work with the actresses and develop the comic timing of their bitchy dialogue?
It all starts with a great script. Barry did not write the script to be played by African Americans, he just wrote great characters. After years of trying to set this up, I thought we should cast the film as African American. It’s not about race, it’s just a choice, so why not? The cast members are consummate professionals. There’s nothing I could have said that would have made those performances better than they were. Actors need a director who will support them and keep an eye on them, and give them an objective perspective of the tone, and block them in a way that will make them look great. It’s not as easy as stepping out of the trailer, hitting a mark and saying the lines. I admire great actors, because I couldn’t do that, and I admire these actors doing this—it’s like watching great magic. How did they get there to get to that moment and play that line so perfectly, and so emotionally, whether it be dramatic or comedic. A lot of it was Barry rehearsing with them. We shot in a week so we had to shoot 15-20 pages in a day. We’d run lines during makeup. I work fast, and with the dialogue and repartee, I turned them loose and it just happened in front of the camera. It was a little bit of a miracle.
What about ego? The characters have enormous egos. Any stories of an actor or actress (not necessarily on this film) who have, as one character in “Knock ‘em Dead” says, “heads bigger than their asses”?
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked with only one actor (who has since passed) who was “difficult.” Actors like me, and think I will take care of them. There’s always the diva—male or female—out there, and many director friends have told me to beware of certain actors/actresses who are not on the same page as the movie. Not only have I discovered young actors who have gone on to success, but I’ve worked with veterans who are amazingly professional. One of my favorites was Christopher Plummer, who I directed in “Skeletons.” He was a doll.
There are characters in “Knock ‘em Dead” that fall victim to snakes, suffocation and other peril. What scares you, or is your fear of dying?
Religious extremists. I’m a devout atheist, so the supernatural doesn’t scare me, but crazy religion fanatics of all religions scare me. That’s tough to show in a comedy. It’s funny-ironic that many of the horrors movies I’ve made had supernatural/demonic possessions and ghosts, but I don’t believe in any of that.
The characters have secrets—like one involving, well, let’s not reveal it. Any secrets you care to share? You used to make films under a pseudonym.
I was never really in the closet, so everyone knew I was gay, so I didn’t have that secret, but I didn’t officially come out until I was 30. It’s been an interesting career. The pseudonyms were practical, because I was working so much in horror, family movies, and [softcore]. I was in the Director’s Guild, I had to work under an assumed name because they were non-union movies.
While the script is bitchy, you deny us a shot of Tommy (Preston Davis) in the Speedo he mentions.
[Laughs]. I‘ve made so many films with guys in their underwear! That was not a conscious choice. It was shot as it was written. If Barry had written a scene of him in a Speedo, I would have shot it. It wasn’t a creative choice. I got Preston in his undies in “Brotherhood V.” This film has tremendous gay appeal though.