Exclusive Interview: Mike Kuciak (Death Metal)
There have been a fair few horror movies where heavy metal music or its culture are a part of the story, what do you think it is about the horror movie genre and metal music that works so well together?
It goes right back to the roots. The first time the world heard heavy metal, it was the song “Black Sabbath” on the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath – a title also shared by a Mario Bava horror movie. Listen to the song. We open with sounds of rain… a distant church bell… we get that creepy, vibrato riff… and Ozzy’s telling us about how he’s terrified by the appearance of a mysterious figure in black. The picture this song paints through sound is 100% horror movie imagery.
Metal is the “horror movie” of music, so to speak. There are a lot of metal songs about horror movies, and a lot of horror movies that include metal. Horror and metal share identical imagery, concepts, iconography, etc. I have never once in my life met a metalhead who didn’t also love horror movies.
Do you listen to heavy metal and if so what are your top 3 bands?
Oh boy, do I. It’s a rare day I don’t spin metal. It’s a genre that has a sound for every mood. There are bands I love in pretty much every sub-genre, so picking an overall top-3. But in terms of the three bands I listen to the most, they would probably be Cannibal Corpse, Fear Factory, and Iron Maiden.
Did you have any bands or songs in mind prior to writing Death Metal that you wanted to be a part of the movie’s soundtrack but couldn’t get them attached for whatever reason?
Thankfully no, we didn’t have that issue. I knew I wanted death metal bands on the soundtrack, but I wanted to stay flexible. I put it out to the internet for bands to submit. We got hundreds of fantastic songs. I could have stacked this soundtrack an infinite number of ways, and all of them would have been killer.
But while I was in pre-production, Kyle Severn reached out to me. Not only is he the drummer for Incantation and Shed the Skin, but he’s also a huge horror guy; he goes to the conventions and festivals, he’s plugged into both scenes. Kyle had heard I was making a death metal horror movie in his backyard, so to speak, and offered to help. He pulled together the show sequence that opens the film.
The Ohio metal community was incredibly welcoming, so I decided to take the opportunity to make the film’s soundtrack something of a showcase for heavy music from that specific area.
For the songs that are featured in Death Metal how hard was it to negotiate getting them in the movie?
Everyone was very forthcoming. They understood I was making an indie movie, coming from a place of love for both metal and horror, and it’s easy to find people who share those passions and want to help out where they can. And as mentioned the community was very welcoming; big horns up to the mighty Ohio scene.
The only aspect that was “hard” is the fact that everyone is incredibly busy, so it’s a lot of playing phone tag, trying to find a moment to talk, etc. But that’s fine; it’s just the work of music and filmmaking.
Death Metal is coming out on Blu-ray from VIPCO and BayView Entertainment on 30th May 3023 and the film has been playing at several film festivals with much acclaim. How has the reception of the film been from the heavy metal maniacs of the world?
All through pre-production I’ve had people asking me online where they can see the movie, when it’s coming out, what bands are in it, etc. That was one of my key pitches to distribution: this is a rabid, passionate community. If you call a movie DEATH METAL, X number of people are going to want to see it from the title alone. I mean, I would.
But then of course the job is to make sure the film lives up to that title. So of course I had to have death metal bands on the soundtrack. And you can’t call a movie DEATH METAL and have it be weak – it had to be gory, scary, weird, sick in the head.
For influence I primarily drew on Italian horror, which not only do I love, but is a style of horror that can bring the goods that a film called DEATH METAL has to deliver. Lately, I’ve seen some filmmakers drawing on Argento, mostly for his lighting. But I don’t see many people drawing on Fulci; there’s a definite Fulci influence on the screen in DEATH METAL. Plus Bava (father and son), Lenzi, Soavi, everyone.
What was your hardest part of filming Death Metal?
Exhaustion. I’ve never been so tired in my life. After the long night shoots, I’d get back to the hotel room and would literally be asleep before my head hit the pillow. And I didn’t have much chance to rest when we weren’t shooting, because I was also producing the film.
What has been your favourite project to work on so far?
DEATH METAL. Not only for the music and horror, but this is my feature debut as a director. I’ve shot a bunch of short films, a couple of music videos, and feature was the next step. It’s a goal toward which I had been working since my first day in film school.
What are your Top 3 horror films from any decade?
Hoo boy… this is like picking my top-3 favorite metal bands, since there are so many films out there that it feels like a crime to not include them all.
But I specially made the movie DEATH METAL, and more generally took the path of filmmaking, because once upon a time I saw EVIL DEAD. I grew up in a very blue-collar neighborhood, and while everyone liked movies, the idea of pursuing a career in filmmaking was tantamount to running off to join the circus. But EVIL DEAD blew me away so much that I started looking into the people who had made it. And to my surprise, I discovered that Raimi, Campbell, Tapert, et al were just normal Midwestern guys… like me. They made the idea of filmmaking seem real. So EVIL DEAD is the top. That one’s personal.
For #2, I’ll pick between my two favorite slashers: HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. I love the weird, grungy, horrific, open-air-asylum sensibility of CHAIN SAW. But I’m from Illinois, and as a director Carpenter is my starting point (and I really like his music, as well), so let’s tip this one into the net and say the original HALLOWEEN.
For #3, two of the best films I’ve ever seen have been THE EXORCIST and THE SHINING. Again, which is my actual favorite depends on my mood of the moment, so just to pick one I’ll go with THE EXORCIST.
So that’s the long way of answering: EVIL DEAD, HALLOWEEN, THE EXORCIST.
For any budding filmmakers out there, what is the best piece of advice that you could give them?
Work on something every day. Thanks to the advent of smart phones, we now have the means of production in our pockets. Everyone is a filmmaker.
If you can’t shoot what you want, shoot what you can. For example, I have several bigger action projects that have been threatening to get made for years. If I only waited on those, I’d just be staring at a wall, waiting for a phone to ring. I’d be miserable. I can’t make those yet… but I can make indie horror movies, which I wanted to do, anyway, so it all works out. The big action stuff can come later.
If you can’t shoot at all, work on someone else’s production. While I was still in Chicago, I grabbed any gig that got me on a set: PA, grip, extra, whatever. Anything that got me in a situation in which I could do the actual work of filmmaking, in whatever capacity, while watching other people do the job – that’s what I was doing.
If you can’t shoot, or get on a set, then write. I’ve been writing almost every day for many years, now. Making choices on the page informs the choices you make in production and post-production, and making choices on set deeply informs the kind of writing you do afterward, when you’ve had to actually turn the words into performances from actors and images on a screen, within a certain time and budget and resource ability.
Develop other skills. I’ve taught myself the Movie Magic suite, and I’ve run budgets, done script breakdowns, and put together Day Out Of Days for not only DEATH METAL, but other films I’ve been trying to get made. You should get an idea of what everyone in filmmaking does, at every stage and every situation. You can’t be the expert of everything, but you should be able to have an understanding and conversation about every aspect of the craft, as much as possible.
Watch good film/TV, and read. Every new film you watch, every book you read, becomes another “word” in your vocabulary as a storyteller. See how other people do the job, and learn from them.
And most important of all… live your life. To connect a film (or any work) with the audience, you have to be able to tell them a story they can understand, and that means a conversation about the shared human experience. A movie is, at core, a dream that has been made shareable through technology, and those dreams only resonate if they’re about the lives we lead.
I’ve long felt that horror works best if, were you take away the monster/killer/ghost – you still have a story to tell. Take away the ghosts, and THE SHINING can still tell a story about a family trying to repair itself in the wake of Jack’s deep failures as a person. Take away the haunted music in DEATH METAL, and it’s still a story about Shadia’s journey toward self-actualization.
Finally, what projects do you have coming up?
Besides DEATH METAL, I have another movie coming out this year: FROM THE SHADOWS. I wrote SHADOWS, and I produced it along with my producing partners Michael Alden and Ian Holt. But I did not direct SHADOWS; that goes to the credit of Mike Sargent. The film stars Keith David, Bruce Davison, and Selena Anduze.
SHADOWS has more of a Lovecraftian influence than DEATH METAL. A lot of people have called it more of a sci-fi/horror movie, and it is “sci-fi” in the sense that, as in Lovecraft’s work, this involves the characters encountering technologies that are too alien for them to understand, which leads them to trouble. In that sense, there’s a heavy PRINCE OF DARKNESS vibe to SHADOWS, and in fact Alan Howarth did the score. And Oscar-award-winning Cecelia Hall worked with us on the sound design. The fx were done by the legendary Vincent Guastini.
Movie Website: www.deathmetalhorrormovie.com
Blast Furnace Media Website: www.blastfurnacemedia.com
Interview by Peter ‘Witchfinder‘ Hopkins
VIPCO & BayView Entertainment will release Death Metal on Blu-ray (Region FREE) in the USA on 30th May 2023.