Jason Lei Howden on Deathgasm

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews,
img_deathgasmA new splatter-fest joins the annals of Kiwi horror comedy at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

Kiwi Jason Lei Howden’s debut film Deathgasm is a riotous horror comedy. It tells the tale of a group of disaffected metal-heads in a small town that feels suspiciously like Howden’s hometown of Greymouth. The metal-heads form a band and inadvertently release demons from hell. Metal causes carnage, but will it save the day?

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?

JASON LEI HOWDEN: It’s one of those things that has always been there. I started off with television when I was very young. But I vividly remember when I was a kid taking photos of my He-Man riding a cat and trying to make a little movie out of that and creating little sets. I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. I dropped out of high school in the Sixth Form and went on to work at a local TV station as an editor and cameraman. I was 17 then, and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Realisation. We’re really lucky in New Zealand to have Weta and that’s been great for a lot of people.

BG: With that technical background, have you always wanted to direct as well?

JH: I went to film school in 2005. I directed a 16mm short there and I did a few other shorts. I also made a short called Veil which had a whole bunch of blue-screen stuff. I couldn’t find anyone to do the special effects so I thought I’d do it myself. I then went on to doing VFX professionally and I’ve been doing that for six years now. It’s great. It pays the bills and it’s a great skillset to have in terms of doing film.

BG: Why horror? Are you a big horror fan or was it something that worked as a first film?

JH: I’ve been a big horror nut for as long as I can remember. I’d go through the old VHS video stores and hire every movie and go through them day by day, ticking them off. That was my horror education. It has been an amazing experience. It’s been unfortunate that it has taken this long but it’s finally there. I’ve met so many amazing fellow directors and producers, and the horror community. So many good people.

BG Were there any key inspirations behind Deathgasm?

JH: I think the obvious ones: Evil Dead, Bad Taste, and Trick or Treat, which is an ’80s heavy metal horror film. But there are a lot of other influences there, stuff like The Goonies and The Monster Squad. I love films where it’s the loser kids who have to save the day. There’s something very endearing about the whole battle of the underdog and there was definitely inspiration from films like that. I was a teenage metalhead, and me and my friends would watch these splatter movies and think, “oh man, imagine if there was a movie like this but with metal-heads doing the saving.” Fast forward 20 years and there you have it.

BG: I got a Fulci vibe. Maybe it was the demons, the gates of hell, the guts falling out?

JH: Yes! A big fan. He always has the eye trauma, which we didn’t end up having a lot of. There was meant to be a lot more but we ran out of money. All of his films are so disgusting—he’s always prodding things into eyeballs. That scene in Zombie where that girl gets her eyes rammed with a stake. I watch a lot of gore and I’m pretty de-sensitised. When it comes to eye violence I still cringe.

BG: I guess it’s now a famous story that this film started as one-line, which won a competition. How much thought did you put into that line?

JH: It was the logline, but also the poster and synopsis. The synopsis had the gist of it, but there wasn’t really any story there. It was: “Metalheads raise demons. Have to save the day.” I think the characters changed. When I sat down to write the script, I realised I had to have a story. The poster helped a lot as well. I photoshopped that in a few hours and I think that helped sell to the producers where I wanted to take the film and that there was an audience for this kind of thing.

BG: You’re obviously a big metal fan, but how did you decide on the sub-genre for the song that would summon the demons?

JH: The song that summoned the demons had a doomy, Black Sabbath riff. I wanted something slow and a bit monotonous, kind of like an old chant. It couldn’t be too racy, because they find this Latin parchment. It had to be something from ‘those days’. The genres in the film—metal is famous for having so many sub-genres and sub-sub genres.

BG: Small town New Zealand seems a perfect setting for a horror film, with a lot of things unsaid and left under the surface. Was that a setting you were particularly conscious of when you were writing the film?

JH: Yeah, totally. There’s always this element of everyone knows everyone. Everyone’s watching you behind curtains. I love small town New Zealand, but there’s definitely a dark side there as well, which a lot of films have covered. I grew up on the West Coast on Greymouth.

BG: Was it easy being a metalhead in Greymouth?

JH: It wasn’t, but it was during the early ’90s, when metal—especially death metal—was peaking hard. It was really easy to get metal albums and tapes back then in music shops. I definitely used to get a bit of shit for the long hair, the sweaty black t-shirts, and the pentagrams.

BG: Deathgasm also probably has the most violent use of a sex toy since A Clockwork Orange.

JH: Of course.

BG: But it was also a great scene.

JH: The producer Andrew [Beattie] came up to me—it was a very low budget film—and he had these dinky little plastic sex toys. They looked like $2 Shop sex toys, anal beads. I thought “what the fuck, we can’t do a scene with these.” I paid for sex toys myself from this underground sex shop who sold these massive Requiem for Dream double-headed dildos and anal beads. I’m not sure how they fit them into a human being. I’ve still got them in a box in storage in Wellington and they’re covered in fake blood. We had a garage sale recently and I accidentally put the box in sale. Out of the corner of my eye I saw this dude open this box, and then close it, and then walk away thinking “I don’t want to know what that was for.”

BG: Probably looked at the fake blood too…

JH: It’s not a good look. It’s lucky he didn’t call the cops. It was probably his civic duty to call someone.

BG: This film is non-CGI?

JH: Yeah, I’m a visual effects artist, that’s what I do for a living. Chefs when they come home don’t want to cook. I’m making a movie and I wanted to keep it as practical as possible. I think a lot of people, particularly horror fans, are a little bit over CGI movies, and I wanted to really do as much as possible. We used an Auckland practical effects studio, who had worked on Spartacus and Evil Dead. They came on board and really helped us out and let us raid their storage container and spare body parts.

BG: I suppose the style pays homage to the horror films you grew up with.

JH: Totally. You look at the gore and it’s funny. It’s not trying to be ultra-realistic.

BG: Have you been surprised by how well the reaction has been, particularly overseas?

JH: Totally. I kept my expectations low, but we went to SXSW and had the premiere there, and it was great. All of the reviews came out the next day and we were getting 4/5, 5/5 reviews. I was blown away. The horror community has been fantastically supportive. I’ve had people rocking up to me in the days afterward and thanking me. It’s been really surreal. I’ve been very humbled by that.

BG: What’s next? Either with Deathgasm or the next project?

JH: There’s been talk about a sequel and we’ll wait and see what happens. I’ve written a treatment. We need as many people to put stuff together really. I’m also exploring different media and expanding on the character in a different form if we’re doing a sequel. Other than that, just writing and chatting to producers about doing stuff. And a shitload of promotion as well. It’s a lot of fun. I think I’ve talked more this last week than I have my entire life.

Deathgasm” receives its New Zealand premiere in Auckland on July 24th. See the New Zealand International Film Festival website for additional screening dates nationwide.

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