Interview: Writer-director Jason Lei Howden talks Deathgasm

Writer-director Jason Lei Howden talks Deathgasm

DIY caught up with Deathgasm’s writer-director recently to talk horror, metal and Dungeons & Dragons.

In Deathgasm, outcast metal head Brodie makes a new best friend in the form of hardcore nutter Zakk. The pair form a band with Brodie’s geeky Dungeons & Dragons buddies, christen themselves DEATHGASM (“all caps – lower case is for wankers”), and proceed to literally wake the dead when they play a song that is actually a demon summoning spell. With their classmates and family possessed by demonic forces and becoming psychotic murderers, it’s up to Brodie, Zakk and their friends to stop a force of pure evil from devouring all of mankind!

All killer, and no filler, the film is full to bursting with metal and D&D jokes, as well as constant, brilliant physical effects based sight gags. Deathgasm is epic and brutal. It’s a heavy metal Evil Dead with a double-ended dildo demon smackdown.

DIY caught up with Deathgasm’s writer-director Jason Lei Howden recently to talk horror, metal and Dungeons & Dragons.

The music, and the representation of metal culture is an enormous part of what makes Deathgasm special. How were you introduced to heavy metal, and what are some of your favourite bands?
I was always drawn to the album covers in record shops when I was a kid, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe especially, but my parents were very strict. Then when I was 13, a schoolmate played Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Tomb Of The Mutilated’. It blew my mind, it was like someone had taken a tape recorder down to the depths of hell. From that point on I was an addict. I started out listening to Morbid Angel, Deicide, Pestilence and Sepultura, then discovered the early stuff like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest later, which is a bit backwards.

The Dungeons & Dragons element of the film provides a lot of laughs, but it is also cool to see this sub-culture portrayed in a movie in a genuine and loving way. Were you a D&D fan growing up, and do you still play?
Yes, I’m a total D&D geek! I used to play D&D, also Heroes Unlimited, TMNT and Rifts, a cyberpunk/fantasy/Lovecraftian roleplaying game. Now THAT would be a cool movie.

Just like in Deathgasm, we used a classroom during lunch breaks so the jocks wouldn’t beat us up. I would love to play again some time but I hardly have time for anything other than film right now.

What, or who, are your horror influences and inspirations?
I’m been obsessed with monsters and horror since I was a toddler. Some of my biggest inspirations are Return Of The Living Dead, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria, Eraserhead, Monty Python, The Beyond, Hausu. I love movies that are bizarre, campy or over the top mainly. Some would call these movies trash, but they are everything to me. You walk out feeling stoned because your mind is reeling from what you just witnessed. I’m a HUGE John Carpenter fan.

You have done visual effects work on some massive movies like Man of Steel, The Hobbit and The Avengers, how has this work helped you as a filmmaker, and when did you decide you wanted to make a movie of your own?
I actually went to film school before becoming a VFX artist. I was always doing short films and music videos in my spare time, which is hard because sometimes VFX can involve 100+ hour weeks. But I kept persevering. It’s a hard lifestyle to balance but I love filmmaking.

How did you go about assembling your cast for the film? Were you auditioning actors in groups to get a sense of their chemistry?
Milo Cawthorne (Brodie) was in one of the first auditions and he just nailed it so well. He does a great mix of comedic straight man and physical funny, and brings a lot of heart to his roles.

Kim Crossman (Medina) sent an audition tape as she was in LA, and it was amazing. James Blake (Zakk) was the hardest to cast. I had auditioned James for another role on a short film and had him in mind, but he was painting houses in a small town and was off the grid. I ended up Facebook stalking him for weeks and finally managed to get in contact.

I gave the lead actors a crash course in heavy metal, with the different genres, best bands, terminology, as well as Youtube videos, albums etc. One great contribution though, was the metal handshake. It was written just as a normal “bro” handshake but the actors, Milo Cawthorne and James Blake improvised a ‘horns shake’ which I just loved!

Juggling horror and comedy is a notoriously difficult thing to do, but you make it seem effortless in Deathgasm. What is your secret to this?
Comedy is hard. Horror comedy is even harder I think. I’m always writing things down, jokes or lines that could work. Or joking around with friends. Most of my humour is aimed at myself or people like me. You have to be able to make fun of yourself, take serious moments from your life and comedy the fuck out of them. Life is less scary that way.

It’s easy to call comedies “silly” and “stupid”, but when you try and make one you soon discover it’s incredibly hard to it pull off.

From Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste and Braindead, to Black Sheep, to Housebound and What We Do In the Shadows, and now Deathgasm, what do you think it is about New Zealand that creates great horror films and filmmakers?
I think it’s our accents. The way we talk is immediately silly so we have a head start. I guess also we grew up with US comedy and UK comedy so that mix of silly innuendo and one liners appeals to a broad audience?

I’ve always wanted to do a NZ slasher movie, totally dark and serious. NZ has never had a slasher villain before. Australia has many. We need to catch up.

And what do you think of the “chortlecore” label? It seems to infuriate some people, but do you not mind terms like this and “death wave” if it makes people see and support cool horror movies?
Ours would be ‘chortleGORE’ right? I hate labels. Hate ‘em. All the extreme reactions over The Witch (is The Witch “deathwave”?) are so depressing. Some fans saying it isn’t a real horror. Then on the other side fans are calling people morons if they don’t like The Witch. I’ve seen some critics calling it the first REAL HORROR in years, and then putting down slashers and horror-comedies as low-brow.

The same thing happens in the metal community with labels, calling people poseurs for liking the ‘wrong’ type of metal. It’s ridiculous.

Deathgasm was given a hilarious retitling by Walmart: “Heavy Metal Apocalypse”. How did you find out this had happened, did they have to ask your permission to change the title, and what do you think of it? (it’s actually kind of grown on me!)
Someone from the production company emailed me through the mock-up a little head of time. It was funny, I was on a bus full of horror directors in Mexico for a film festival. I showed it around and we had a laugh, a few of the others had been in the position also. I didn’t have any input at all but that’s just what happens. Every distributor needs to do what they can to sell the film. I’m trying to get a copy myself because I’m in Australia and Walmart don’t post. It will be a weird oddity in the future, maybe even a collector’s item. A relic from our conservative past perhaps.

There is a rumour that Deathgasm syncs up precisely to Iron Maiden’s “Live After Death” - is this true?
ABSOLUTELY. Many others have tried it and they will testify that it works, at least on the official DVD version.

Will there be a sequel to Deathgasm, and if so do you have any plot or title ideas as yet? “Multiple Deathgasm”? “Deux-thgasm”?
Those could be great tag lines! Right now it’s Deathgasm Part 2: Goremageddon. It’s massively ambiguous but there is a script. I want to make something gorier than Braindead (Dead Alive) just to prod Peter Jackson a little. He’s a hero of mine so I feel like I should try and top Braindead then go on make an epic fantasy, maybe a live action version of Bakshi’s Wizards? Why not?

What else do you have planned, do you want to stick to horror, or are there other genres you are keen to explore?
I’m actually writing an action movie right now. It’s going to be a lot of fun if we can get it made. I don’t have any small ideas.

Thank you for your time, Jason. Brotherhood of Steel!
Brotherhood of motherfucking STEEL!!!

Deathgasm is available in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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