From Sondheim to Serial Killers, The Wild Rise of an Indie Auteur: An Interview
with Actor, Writer, Director and All-Around Horror Fan Christopher Wesley Moore
Cont’d from : Interview: Christopher Wesley Moore – Part 1
KN: Not every male actor in the industry can claim on their resume that they once portrayed a vegan lesbian who talks to trees and performs tantric sex. Can we assume that is another example of you not being a fan of convention in any way? And having a protagonist that is the angry spirit of a dead cow has to be a first. Were you concerned that the meat industry might come calling at some point?
CM: Oh, God! That was a hoot and a half. That was another short film made for one of Nina’s classes. I can’t remember which one. We recruited our friend, Alisha, to complete the triad. It was such a blast, because, once again, Nina is all about the absolutely absurd and she just pushes you to come up with the weirdest stuff imaginable. Once again, this was all improvisation and I couldn’t believe the things that were coming out of my mouth. That’s what I love about improvisation – it really forces you to never drop character and to be really in the moment. Who else gets to say they’ve played a scene where their lesbian lover is possessed by the spirit of a dead cow and they get milk vomited on them? Trying to keep a straight face was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do during anything that Nina and I have done. We’d just crack ourselves up and think “Well, if we’re laughing, other people might, too.”
KN: In 2013, you were able to continue American Dream into a mini-series, offering further adventures for Dick Bobbitt, Frank Mancini, even someone called Sandy Duncan-Hines (for those like myself who grew up on films like The Million Dollar Duck from Disney with Sandy Duncan starring, I had the extra laugh at the name alone). It seems to me that you are taking your own observations of the quirks and traits of ordinary people you meet or see in life and incorporating them into your characters with some exaggeration. Would that be accurate at all?
CM: I think that’s very accurate and I love that you actually got the Sandy Duncan-Hines reference. I’m just fascinated with people, their voices, mannerisms, and what makes them tick. The American Dream series just seemed like a natural progression of what we’d been doing for the past 2 years. We’d keep coming up with these ideas for characters and we decided to throw them all into the same town and see how their lives would intersect. I came back to Winston-Salem, North Carolina the year after I graduated college and we shot about a month there and then Nina came to Jackson, Mississippi to finish it up. I think the pilot episode is really terrific. I remember screening it for Nina’s avant grade class and people just howling with laughter. I wish there’d been some way to sell that and get money to make the rest of it and really do it correctly. As much fun as improvisation is, I think it hurt parts of that series. I’d try to come up with at least a rough outline of where the season would go for all the characters and all the conflicts, but I wish there’d been more of an actual script. If we’d had that, who knows how great it would have been.
There are still moments that I love and I adore every single one of those characters that we played. I’m not of the school of improvisation where you do the whole “yes? And?” thing. I think that, if you want a scene to feel real, there should be times when the character doesn’t want to speak or is holding back. We’d have a lot of fun with that. I think we were mainly inspired by the Chris Lilley shows like Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, etc. In those, he created these very different (sometimes, horrific) characters who, by the end of the series, you really felt for. He was able to bring out the humanity in even the most absurd of characters. We just thought he was brilliant and wanted to do something of that nature. Sometimes, we had the most fun allowing our characters to say and do the most outrageously offensive and awful things and then finding a way that the audience could relate to them again and understand why they were the way they were. I think that’s a theme in most of my work. I love to expose the humanity underneath the evil, wicked, or bizarre. All in all, I don’t know if the series was completely successful, but there are so many moments in there that I thought were absolutely bonkers and hilarious.
KN: I have to re-watch the excellent 2014 James Brown bio, Get on Up now after finding you have an uncredited bit as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. What was the experience of being on that set for the Chadwick Boseman starrer? It must’ve been an education just observing the business machine of making movies in full swing.
CM: That was an experience. I’d just put my name in the hat to be an extra, because I needed the money at the time. They picked me out and said I’d be great as Dennis Wilson, which paid more as a featured extra. I had to drive 2 hrs out of my way to get the costume fitting and get my hair bleached (which might have been the best dye job of all time since it lasted nearly a year). Like most big budget film sets, it was a lot of “hurry up and wait.” I think I had to report to set at 7 a.m. and we didn’t get to the scene until 4 or 4:30 p.m. and we were losing light, so they set up these huge lights outside the church where we were shooting and pumped it through the windows, so that it still looked like daytime.
Once we got going, I don’t even know if it took an hour to get the scene. It was very quick, but when I walked out to go home, it was pitch black outside, which was so unnerving. Those lights had messed me up. I’m honestly not a big fan of big budget film sets. I feel like it takes 30 people to get a simple task done. If you ask for water, they have to ask someone, who has to ask someone, who has to ask someone, etc. You’ll get your water 20 minutes later when you could have just gotten it yourself in 2 minutes. There’s a lot of wastefulness and excess. I prefer the nervous energy of a small budget set where everyone is helping and it feels more like a family. It’s intense, but way more fun. I will say that Chadwick Boseman was one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met and he was wonderful in the film and I’m so thrilled to see him get so much success. It’s so nice when people who actually deserve it, make it in this business.
KN: The ultimate male version of Mama Rose was next for you in the comedy A Star is Stillborn. While I’ve seen dads pushing their children to succeed in sports, I’ve never really seen it in theater or read about it for film. Is this an occurrence that you’ve witnessed or were you mostly interested in just the irreverence of gender-bending the Gypsy theme here?
CM: That was pretty much a feature length version of the Frank Mancini portion of The American Dream. That storyline kept sticking out as having potential to work as a feature, so I cut all those portions into a film and then we added a few little extra bits to tie it all together. It had been my dream to play Mama Rose for a few years and I figured this would be the closest I’d ever get to playing the role. I think it was ok and I was fine in the movie, but something felt off about it. I never really tried hard to distribute it. Maybe I should put it on Amazon Prime. There might be an audience for it. It was far more rewarding to actually get to play Mama Rose on stage last year. I’ll never forget that. The only problem is – once you’ve played Rose, where do you go from there? To me, it’s the finest role ever written for the stage (musical or non-musical). You get to do everything – be conniving, charming, funny, sexy, terrifying, pathetic, disturbing. What other roles are like that? It almost makes you want to give up acting after you’ve played it.
KN: Blessed are the Children, from 2016, explores the abortion angle and puts it into a blood-chilling context. From what I’d read, you got the idea while being required to attend pro-life assemblies in 7th grade Catholic school. Could you expand on this?
CM: I got that idea after all those damn pro-life assemblies I had to suffer through as a middle schooler. I was Episcopal, which, if you’re going to be a Christian, is probably the way to go. They’re pretty chill. They’re cool with gay and female clergy and they like their wine. I also went to an Episcopal school from pre-k to 6th grade, so abortion wasn’t really a hot topic in my life. It wasn’t until I switched to a Catholic school in 7th grade that I started hearing about abortion this and abortion that. I just didn’t really get it, but some of these people were so gung-ho about it that it was genuinely terrifying. I remember being in science class and doodling away in my notebook and coming up with the germ of an idea – religious fanatics target women who have had abortions. That was it. It seemed like a good, scary idea that hadn’t really been done before.
Life went on and I ended up coming back to that idea around 2015 when I realized I hadn’t made a film in a while and I was getting the bug again. It seemed like a nice, simple film to ease my way back into the film world. I feel like I’d written maybe 20 or 30 pages, stopped, and come back to it later. I think what really got it cooking was going through a similar experience as the character of Traci with a very odd relationship with someone who was unattainable and who I seemed to be more into than they were into me. It was all the self-doubt, depression, and feelings that goes along with something like that which gave the character of Traci that spark that brought her down to earth and made her relatable, because we’ve probably all been there. Once I found that, the rest of it became fairly easy to write. I’d written the character of Mandy for my dear friend, Keni Bounds. We’d been doing these incredibly funny murder mystery comedies on the road for about a year or two and she’s just one of those people you want to share the stage with. She’s so damn funny.
Blessed was a great experience all around and that cast was so great. One of the most gratifying things has been people coming up to me and telling me how much they loved the characters and how sad they where when they were killed. That means the story works and people get invested in it. It’s supposed to be coming out this fall from Wild Eye Releasing, so I can’t wait to see how the rest of the public responds to it. It’s not a gore fest, so that’s turned off some of the gore hounds, but I think if you’re more of a fan of classic slashers like He Knows You’re Alone or Halloween, you’ll love it. It’s very character driven and suspenseful and I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish with about a buck fifty.
KN: With projects such as The House of Covered Mirrors and Triggered in post-production as director and pending work as an actor in Off the Air and The New Family, you seem to be diving into the chiller genre headlong again, though I doubt you will ever be far away from comedy. Does the horror genre provide its own freedoms of creativity in addition to the money potential for you or is a return to this because of your familiarity with the formula?
CM: Off the Air and The New Family are sorta up in the air at the moment. They get really close to happening and then they stop and then get really close and stop. I’m still not sure when they’ll start filming, but the scripts I’ve read are very good and I’m excited to get working on them. The House of Covered Mirrors is funny, because I started that movie when I was 13 or 14 years old under a different title. I’d sorta washed my hands of it in high school, but my producer/editor looked at the footage a few years ago and was like “it’s a shame we never could make this work, because a lot of the footage is really great. We should add some extra scenes and get people like Lynn Lowry and Debbie Rochon to play some roles in the film and really make it work.” I was sorta on the fence, because it had been a LONG part of my life that had drained me emotionally, but I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity to work with fabulous ladies like that. I’m still not sure how it’ll turn out, but I have fond memories of the original shoot even if it was stressful and I had no idea what was doing. There were no rules and anything seemed possible.
Triggered I’m very excited for. I think it’s my best film yet and it’s incredibly funny and a real blast. Getting to work with Amanda Wyss was such a joy and the cast we’ve assembled is really something special. I’ve just started submitting it to film festivals and the trailer just came out this week and has been getting a great response. We’ve had a little controversy with some people who are assuming they know what the film is about and how we’re going to handle the touchy subjects it deals with (if you don’t believe me, look the “reviews” on the film’s Facebook page). If anything, I’m excited for them to see it, because, if they have half a brain, they’ll see that the film is much more nuanced than what they might have initially expected. It’s not a movie that punches down at anyone and I think that’s what they’re scared of. That’s not really my style. I really thought Blessed would be the controversial movie and we haven’t heard barely a peep about that film thus far. I’ve had critics who thought it might be some Christian scare movie, but, to their credit, after they saw it, they realized their fears were unfounded. Hopefully, people will be the same way with Triggered.
As for working in the horror genre, I love it because it allows you to do films about important issues that no one would want to see a straight drama about. I mean, who wants to see a drama about a girl who gets an abortion? It sounds dull to me. By tackling these issues in something a bit more fantastical, you can talk about these issues without getting on a soapbox and having your audiences bolt for the door. No one wants to watch a lecture, which is how these “very important films” sometimes feel. Horror is also such a broad genre. There’s so many subgenres to play with. Plus, horror fans are so supportive and always looking for something new. They’re very loyal and, once you’ve made a name for yourself as a filmmaker or actor they can depend on, they’re with you for life.
KN: As your filming history shows extensive use of the internet as a platform for releasing your productions, you are just the person for this next question. Do you think social and streaming media such as Youtube and Facebook are the wave of the future for young helmers and performers such as yourself, especially in the horror/fantasy realm? It certainly seems the wave of now in the instances of getting the name and material out there.
CM: I think it’s the only way to get your name out there these days. I do Facebook and Instagram, but I don’t understand Twitter. I have way too much to say for Twitter. You just have to hope and pray that people see what you do, like it, and tell their friends about it on social media. That seems to be the only way things spread these days. Gone are the days of going to the video store and renting a movie because you thought the cover art looked cool. As a kid, it was my dream to have my films in the video store, but it looks like that dream will never come true. What a difference a couple of decades makes, huh? Even some of the horror sites are elitist and have no problem kissing the ass of all the major studios and talking about how each one of their new releases is “the scariest movie I’ve ever seen”, but they won’t give the time of day the little guys. It’s really sad. I’ve been very lucky to meet some wonderful horror fans online who have been very supportive to me and my films and who’ll spread the word and try to get my name out there. I don’t take them for granted.
I think the big issue is that, these days, any idiot with an iPhone can technically make a movie. Now, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a good movie (in most cases, it’ll be anything but), but home editing software is so inexpensive these days and any Joe Schmoe can make a movie and get it released if it has enough exploitable elements to sell. There’s SO much product and a lot of it isn’t very good. Even film festivals are becoming murky these days. I’m sorry, but if your movie costs over a million bucks, it’s not a freakin’ indie movie and it shouldn’t be shown in a film festival. If your movie stars Nicole Kidman, you can’t pretend like that didn’t help in getting your film seen, even if it’s crappy. So many lines are blurred now. Some of the best movies are going straight to Netflix or Amazon. The industry has changed rapidly and continues to every day, so the only thing you can do is make your movie and hope it reaches people. Hell, I actually managed to get Blessed played in a real, honest-to-God theater for a night and made a little money off of it. That was surreal and something I never thought would happen in this day and age.
KN: Before we close, I would like to ask about how your CWM Entertainment company came to be and what lurks on the horizion for Christopher Wesley Moore? And I always conclude my interviews with the ubiquitous question: what advice would you give other budding filmmakers and artists as they find their voice, so to speak?
CM: My advice is to just tell the stories you want to tell. Don’t let anyone tell you it won’t sell or isn’t commercial or needs more blood or more CGI or whatever. Those who wait for someone to throw them 20 mil to make their first movie will be waiting until they die. That doesn’t happen unless you’re related to some Hollywood power player. You have to prove that you can make something out of nothing. For your first movie, make something that you can actually pull off. I’m sure your dream movie might be some international spy thriller with tons of explosions and only Jude Law can play your leading man, but stick a fork in that and make something you can shoot in your house with your community theatre friends over a few weekends. It doesn’t have to be splashy and flashy. To me, the two things a great film needs is a great script and a great cast. Everything else is icing on the cake. Don’t forget to have those two things because a great script can be ruined by bad actors and great actors can’t make a bad script great.
As for the future of CWM, I’m cooking up a few things. One is a supernatural thriller in the vein of Carnival of Souls, which’ll be a big departure for me and I’me excited about it. I actually started working on it before Triggered, but Triggered was one of those ideas that grabbed me by the collar and said “screw everything else! You’re writing me first!” I’m also developing a sort of dark, modern fairy tale. I think of it as a cross between Flowers in the Attic and Hellraiser. It’s a very emotional family saga, but I have to wait until the time is just right. I’m working on a few other ideas and some plays as well. There’s always something. I don’t know how to enjoy down time. I can go maybe a week without doing something and then I get antsy.
KN: Thank you for your time and willingness to answer my questions for this interview. From what I’ve seen so far, you are an amazing talent who, I’ve no doubt, will reach super heights in the coming years.
CM: Thank you so much, Kevin. It’s been lovely talking to you.
Incidentally, folks, much of Mr. Moore’s short videos can be found on youtube (simply put Christopher Wesley Moore into search). None of his features are yet available on retail dvd. I am told releases to dvd and streaming will be coming this fall.