The Stanley Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday and I’m back here in LA posting the final few pieces of coverage. This year was far and away the best and most communal experience I’ve had at a film festival (topping even last year) and one of the highlights – aside from an immersive game that had people breaking into my room at 330 in the morning – was this chat with Cooties stars Elijah Wood, Alison Pill and Leigh Whannell. I’ve edited down to the most interesting bits about the film (we went down a pretty deep rabbit hole when the conversation turned to today’s kids, so I’ve only left the essential part of that in).
Check out my write-up of the film’s premiere and head below for the interview. We talk about what attracted them to the project, the forced happiness of Pill’s character, and the general state of kids today. Cooties was directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. Whannell also wrote the film along with Glee’s Ian Brennan.
Collider: I want to hear about how the project came together. Horror-comedies are hard.
LEIGH WHANNELL: Yeah. Elijah had formed this company [Spectrevision] with Daniel Noah and Josh Waller and they wanted to kind of produce horror films. And I didn’t know anything about it, but a friend of mine who knows them told me the idea for Cooties. He was like, “Yeah, they’ve formed this company, and they want to make horror films independently. They’ve got a few ideas of their own, like this one about a food-borne virus that affects children, and it’s called Cooties…” And that’s really all he said, and I remember I was instantly, straight away like, “I want to be involved with that, I want to write that.” Which never happens to me. And I met up with them and said, “You know, it’s got to be a horror comedy.” So then I grabbed Ian, who’s a friend of mine, Ian Brennan, who co-created Glee. I was like, “This is the perfect guy to write this script.” We had sort of been talking about doing something together, and I was like “This is perfect!” Like a horror-comedy set at a school? It couldn’t be more perfect for, you know, the Saw guy and the Glee guy writing a script together. And then once we wrote the script, these guys had to go off and find the money, which is hard, as you know, in the independent world.
Elijah this something you wanted to star in before they started writing it, when you guys had the general concept?
ELIJAH WOOD: Oh, I wanted nothing to do with it as an actor at all. It was always a concept that we were in love with. And with the company I was really just wanting to focus on getting these movies that we were excited about. So no, I did not want to play a character in the film until like, the eleventh hour, kind of. And at that point, I thought “Well fuck, this is going to be way too much fun doing the work.” Like, it’s going to be like a summer camp situation, and the script was so good. And the cast that came together was so incredible that I just wanted to be a part of it.
WHANNELL: I mean, you’ve never been in any of the other Spectrevision films, have you?
WHANNELL: Yeah, so it’s kind of admirable. He’s really trying to produce horror movies. Not be a part of it.
Not making vehicles for yourself.
WOOD: Right, yeah, exactly.
Alison you have to be super positive in this until you kind of unleash at the end.
ALISON PILL: Well, I don’t improvise. I knew that it would be great surrounded by that many funny people, that I was very comfortable with my job. And I also just love Lucy. I mean, it’s just fun to play somebody that optimistic, and sort of an homage to my kindergarten teacher. You know, no matter what you did, would just be like “That is so great. That is really awesome. Good work!” And is just completely blind to the fact that somebody’s a dick. You know, just really all in all very optimistic.
WHANNELL: When Ian and I were writing it, we were like, “Okay, Lucy. We wanted to write someone who was like psychopathically positive. And Allison nailed it. I remember when we were shooting, I was like, “Oh my god, she’s nailed that like ‘I’m so happy!’” You can just see something’s going on, just a mask of happiness, with something else going on underneath.
What kind of conversations did you have about the tone? Especially considering the kids?
WHANNELL: I think what Ian and I loved about it was this kind of commentary that’s there, you know, running underneath the movie about modern kids. They are taking these adult drugs, and scarfing them down, and sitting there on their phones, and talking like adults. And I feel like there’s a sort of modern problem of kids sort of rushing to adulthood. You know, not just being eight-year-olds. Now they’re so connected to their phones.
PILL: But it’s also a false adulthood. It’s still very childish. So the problem lies in this missing beat that actually leads to maturity, not just watching porn and having some concept of vaginas. Like, no, that doesn’t mean that you’re a professional sex man [everyone laughs].
When I think of this younger generation, I try to think back to what I thought when I was that age, but I find them still terrifying to some degree.
WHANNELL: Yeah, I mean, just things like you know, selfies and stuff like that. I have to catch myself and go, “Well, you know, when you were a teenage your dad was rallying against everything that you liked.” And now the baton has just been passed and now you’re going to do it.” So I try not to be the guy who’s like “you kids and your selfies…” And other times I’m like, “No! It’s weird! It’s weird that there’s an entire culture growing up being like ‘this is normal, this is great.’”
WOOD: And they’re on facebook…
You feel physically different after you’re online for four hours, or mentally different. Imagine, that’s their normal state of being.
WHANNELL: Well it’s changing our brains. Because they’re growing up with it, it’s actually not changing their brains. Their brains are that. They didn’t change from something else. I mean, already my daughter at 2 can operate my phone. I’m like, “locked it” and she just unlocks it with the swipe of her finger. I think that the Internet does change the wiring of human brains. And attention spans are getting so short, it’s little bits of things.
PILL: And the difference in ego, and selfhood is I think the bigger thing. There’s been this series of articles by David Brooks about the kind of 1950s perception of self and importance of yourself in the world versus now, where you’re like “I want to be famous” – and originally, this was about a normal twenty-ish, and now it’s like sixty-seven percent of people believe that they will be famous and have every hope of it .
The movie was shot on a budget but looks fantastic. Can you talk about getting all of this onscreen?
PILL: I think everybody spent it on the right stuff. And also, it’s one day and one location, which is a huge thing because you can get used to the space a lot more, versus trying to get transportation to the next spot that you don’t know and don’t know how to light. And you never get used to anything when you are crunched for time. So already, like, we have one outfit. We have like, one location. And so then the things that get to be focused on with the money are the effects. Really specific shots, like the baseball in the face shot, the jaw stuff. And then just make-up. You know, like, all of the stuff that when it’s done badly in a low budget movie is painful to watch. It’s like, don’t put a wig on if you don’t have a budget. You know?