I first met Daniel Emery Taylor after he read my review of The Return of Swamp thing, wherein I referred to the child version of him as a “chubby red-headed riot.” He found it amusing, but called me out nonetheless. We got to talking and here we are! His solo directorial feature debut is It’s Just A Game, a movie, also written by Daniel, about sleepover games turned sinister.
So, did Bloody Mary have her baby? Why did you choose spooky sleepover games as your starting point?
Well, truth be told, the original script was based around an augmented reality game that went wrong – a bullied girl enters her tormentor’s name into this website and the game actors stalk and kill her. That is why the cult is set up as a theatre troupe. As time went on and the story evolved, the augmented game aspect became much too clunky so I started looking at more supernatural angles. Going down the Google rabbit hole, I came across a site filled with creepy Japanese slumber party games. The Mary Proctor game was based mostly on Daruma-san. Even though the Mother Murder game is based partly on an actual person (mixed with a great deal of my own lore I added in) the game they played to summon her is based on the Closet Game. Sleepovers are a perfect set up for horror because kids like to fuck with each other. It’s the whole purpose of sleepovers.
What about It’s Just a Game turned out exactly as you had envisioned or hoped?
The performances. The cast is great. When you are dealing with ultra micro budget indie (films made for less than one hundred thousand) you can sometimes have difficulty finding the right actors or you can end up with a film that is very uneven. And, sure, there are varying levels of skill here, too, but overall I am quite pleased with the performances everyone gave. Hannah Cohen-Lawlor, our lead, is amazing – she is a star. She is just waiting for the right person to see her so she can break out. Leah Hudspeth, too … a top notch performer. Elisha Williams has such natural comedic timing that I wish I had expanded her role a bit. G. Larry Butler is a guy who I have worked with several times and he really brings that Old Hollywood flair to everything he does. I’m the worst actor in the film!! And I’m okay with that – not because I’m bad (I think I’m okay) but because everyone else is so good.
I’m sure it came along with it’s challenges too?
If you aren’t managing catastrophes, you aren’t making films! But I am a big believer in “all’s well that ends well.” Even things that I would have initially mentioned as challenges – budgetary issues, special effects issues – ended up as benefits, because they caused us to be smarter and more creative. Some have even remarked how we went with the “less is more” Texas Chainsaw route – making the audience believe it saw more than it did. This is because we could not afford heads exploding everywhere, hahaha … we had to be a little more sly! And I think it makes it a better picture. Spielberg had the same issues with Jaws – the mechanical shark was constantly breaking down so they had to be more sparing in how it was shot. It built suspense that way. As Bob Ross would say, “happy accidents.”
The pictures of you as a child with the eyes crossed out— was this intended as tongue-in-cheek, or does it factor into the deeper unspoken lore of the story?
There is so much lore to the film – so many barely mentioned subplots, undercurrents … histories and backstories. Most of that is just for my benefit as the writer and director. But it is a deep well should I choose to revisit the It’s Just A Game world. To answer your question, it is definitely part of Thaddeus’ past. I envisioned himself as a failed child actor who now believes himself to be an actor in this great phantasmal stage performance. He takes “all the world’s a stage” a little bit too far, if you will. That is why, canonically, the Troupe de Reel, the cult of the story, is set up as a theatre cult. That is why so many of them are constantly wearing masks or make-up. They envision themselves as performers. The defaced headshots reflect Thaddeus turning his back on his old self for what he considers to be a better way.
What would you pair with It’s Just a Game for a perfect double feature?
Pair it with The Neon Demon and The Witch and make it a marathon.
You acted as a child, most notably in one of my favorite fun movies, The Return of Swamp Thing. What was that like? Did it feel like summer camp?
It did, in a way! It was such an amazing experience because I was completely new to the entire process. It was my first acting role and my first time stepping on set. I’m sure I was the stereotypical annoying kid, getting in the way and asking too many questions, but everyone was so kind and gracious. I loved working with Jim Wynorski – it’s funny because he has such a reputation for being a hothead, being brash or blunt. In fact, I remember production assistants telling my Mom “He’s a monster! Everyone is afraid of him!” But he was never anything but awesome to us. Very patient and very cool. And everyone was like that to us. It was a very positive experience.
What is it about filmmaking that has held your interest for so song?
I’m a storyteller – there are stories in my head that have to get out. And it’s not enough for me to tell you what they are. I have to show you.
Do you forgive me?
Hmm … let me read your review of It’s Just A Game first. Seriously, though, I did think it was funny. I started following #ReturnOfSwampThing on Instagram because I have fun with it. People will post “This is my favorite movie!” and I’ll comment “Yeah, me too!” And they’ll respond with “Wait a minute – are you really …?” Or the opposite – they will trash it and I will respond with something like “Well, we tried to do our best” or something. It’s amusing to watch people then try to walk it back. It’s like reverse trolling.
Lastly, what are your goals? What’s next?
I have a few different projects ready to roll out – just trying to find the right producer for them. (This is filmspeak for “I need money,” hahaha.) As far as goals, my only real goal is that I want every film I make to be better than the last. I demand constant growth and improvement from myself. Better. Different. Bigger. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying on the vine. Directing a Marvel movie would be cool, too. I have some great ideas for Moon Knight … though Man-Thing would probably be a good choice for me, as well!
Thanks so much for carving a moment out for us!
And now, Daniel Emery Taylor trivia.
“I still eat string cheese like I’m a five year old.”
Top 5 Favorite genre films:
Movie that turned you on to horror:
“The Re-Animator. I was probably five or six … MUCH too young to watch it. It gave me nightmares but I loved it.”
“The It’s Just A Game premiere in Chicago was a big one. IJAG is my solo directorial debut – I had previously co-directed three other films and I was incredibly unhappy with all three of them. Sure, I could say that it was conflicting artistic views or put blame on other folks or whatever but when I had three (what I would consider) failures it really started to make me question if I had the mental tools and skill to do this. But when I stood in front of a packed theatre of one hundred or so folks after seeing this picture and everyone was so kind and encouraging, with sincere excitement about the picture, it was a really validating moment for me. I can look back at my previous work and say “okay, it was a bad fit … but now I’m rowing my own boat and people are responding to it.”
Person you’d like to punch in the face: