Interview: Filmmaker Jason Eisener on Kids vs. Aliens, Alien Creature Design and All That Slime
In 2007, writer/director/editor Jason Eisener won a contest for directing the best grindhouse trailer for the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse. The trailer was for a fake film called Hobo with a Shotgun, and four years later, Eisener made this fake trailer into a real feature film, starring Rutger Hauer as the titular character. Since then, the filmmaker contributed shorts to the anthology The ABCs of Death, made some short films, and created the popular wrestling documentary series Dark Side of the Ring and Tales from the Territories. He also made the “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” segment for 2013’s found-footage horror anthology V/H/S/2, which many critics consider the best chapter of the film.
Perhaps because of this, Eisener has expanded the segment into this month’s Kids vs. Aliens, which he co-wrote with John Davies. Pulling from his own childhood fascination with aliens and fear of an invasion, as well as from his love of wrestling, the film centers on sister Samantha (Phoebe Rex) and and younger brother Gary (Dominic Mariche), who love making movies with Gary’s friends that involve gooey aliens and using wrestling moves to defeat them. As much as Sam enjoys shooting these short films, she’s embarrassed that she still spends so much time with these younger kids. A guy she has a crush on, Billy (Calem MacDonald) pokes fun at her for it, while also flirting with her, and leads her to consider leaving her brother and his friends behind. First she agrees to host a party at her house for Billy and his knucklehead friends while her parents are out of town, then she outwardly rejects her brother publicly so no one thinks she’s a nerd.
In the midst of all of this, an alien ship drops into the lake behind their house and starts roaming the woods looking for victims for an unknown reason (that’s actually really gross). The film captures a youthful energy and enthusiasm for all things genre and wrestling, everything including the creature design and barrels of goop that the aliens use for reasons I won’t reveal here, but I promise it’s nasty. Despite the blood and ick and loads of four-letter words, the film feels like it’s made for younger people, still testing the limits of how much gore they can handle. In other words, bring the whole family.
I sat down for a Zoom interview with Eisener recently to discuss all that went into the making of the film, including the family dynamic in the house where he grew up in Canada. The film is playing in a limited theatrical release and is available on VOD. Here’s our conversation…
Congratulations on the film, first of all. What made you want to go back to your original short and expand upon it? Or did you always have an idea about how to do that from when you first made it?
Ever since I did that short—and it has been like 12 years now—I had dreamed of doing a feature-length version of it. I had other ideas, like a whole TV series I was developing, that I spent a couple years trying to get off the ground. So it was a space I’d been dreaming about for a long time, and I grew up loving kids’ movies that took things seriously. There was talk about doing a feature film version of it not long after V/H/S/2 came out, but it never came together. But a year or so ago, I was talking to Brad Miska, and we were both expressing how much we would have loved to make that into a feature film. And he just happened to pitch it to someone at RLJE Films, who said that it was his favorite segment from all the V/H/S films, and that he would love to see me make a movie of it. Honestly, it was the fastest thing I’ve ever had greenlit. I’ve spent years trying to get projects off the ground, and here, I didn’t even have a script, I didn’t have to do that whole song and dance, or make a pitch package or anything. These guys said, “We believe in you to make this movie. Go do it.”
This one feels like a very personal story for you. Did that make it easier to get the script together quickly, drawing from your own experiences as a kid?
Absolutely. There is so much of much of me and my co-writer John Davies in this movie. We’ve known each other since we were five years old, from about first grade. We even went to college together. Yeah, we discovered our love for filmmaking and he was at my house every weekend, and I was at his house for lunch every day in school. So much of the shenanigans in the movie with the kids are based on true moments, as well as all of my childhood fears. I grew up in Nova Scotia, which is a hotbed for supernatural and paranormal mysteries, so it was part of the culture for hundreds of years.
There was the great story about a UFO that crashed in the southern part of Nova Scotia in 1967, and the opening of my movie kind of pays tribute to that story. In the real life story, a bunch of fishermen thought it was a plane that went down, so they raced over with their fishing boats to try and find what they hoped would be survivors of the crash. But when they got there, there was no debris, just glowing light coming from the depths below. When I was a kid, there was a show called “In Search Of…,” and there was an episode about it. That terrified me. My uncle was in the navy, and he’d told me all of these stories and rumors that he’d heard about it over the years. They were amazing, and that fired up my imagination, but I was also terrified of the idea of being abducted by aliens.
I was going to ask you about that. This movie feels like it comes from the heart and soul of a person who grew up thinking about this way more than the average kid might have.
Oh yeah. For me, I remember seeing the trailer on TV for Fire in the Sky. The trailer said “Based on a true story,” and just that alone caused me for years to be so terrified. It was during this time period where my parents were trying to convince me that there were no such things as ghosts or aliens, but then the TV is showing me glimpses of the abduction and saying “Based on a true story.” It messed me up, and I kept a baseball bat under my bed for years. It really did give me a lot of anxiety, and I also had sleep paralysis growing up. If you’ve ever seen that documentary The Nightmare…
I absolutely have.
When I saw that movie, it made me cry because finally I was hearing people give accounts of things I was experiencing. So I would see dark figures come into my room as a kid. Doctors couldn’t tell us what that was, so for a period, I thought maybe I was being visited by aliens.
With all of these aliens and demons visiting you, you’re lucky you made it out of your teenage years.
[laughs] For sure.
I really loved the character of Samantha in the film. She’s at that perfect point in her teen years where she’s still playing with her younger brother and his friends, but she’s also got boys in her sights. Is she based on someone in your life? Do you have a sister like that?
Definitely. My sister is the main inspiration for the Samantha character. In reality, I was a year older than her. She used to be in my movies growing up, and I remember both of us going through the same time period that Samantha is going through, where she’s feeling self-conscious about herself. She wants to impress some older kids, closer to her age, so she starts establishing who she is. I remember having similar feelings. In the movie, there’s a scene where the kids bust into her room when she has the popular boy over, and they bring in a stereo with techno music blasting and throwing Christmas decorations all around. That absolutely came from real life. I remember doing that to my sister at three in the morning, and some of them are on video. It stopped when she jumped out of bed and grabbed the CD out of the stereo and crushed it with one hand from being so angry. She’s the best, and the Samantha character becomes a strong one, and I think a lot of that comes from my sister. She’s the strong one in my family; we all go to her when we need someone to talk to.
I want to ask about your alien creature design. There’s something familiar about it and yet I feel like you tried to do a few things differently. Talk about the evolution of the design, and I need to know how many actual suits you had.
Gosh, I don’t know the total number, but it wasn’t a lot. I think we could only afford to have three or four aliens on screen at one time, because for every person in a suit, it takes all these other people to help take care of them, so the costs add up—almost two people per alien that you need to help handle them and get them where they’re going because it’s hard to see and help them get fed and get their costume off. But I think we had like seven or eight costumes total.
Steve Newburn designed them; he’s a great makeup effects artist. They’re inspired by when I was a kid and terrified of aliens, I would go to the library to research them, and it’s pretty insane when I look back at it to think of the abduction stories I was reading in the sixth grade. When I would see pictures of the tall greys, I connected with that look. It might have been also because I was having sleep paralysis, and seeing these dark, bipedal humanoid figures. I think that’s what was scary to me, and it’s not too far off from a human form.
Regarding your effects budget, I’m impressed my how much mileage you got out of just well-placed lights. You can show things and hide things using lights, either aimed right at the camera or slightly away from the camera. Can you talk about making the most out of your effects budget?
We had to come up with all sorts of old-school tricks. Even for the UFO light, we got a friend with a drone, and we found a light that was lightweight and could shoot out a ton of light, so that thing helped us out a lot. In some ways, we’re making this movie about kids making a movie, we couldn’t help feel like we were kids making our movie too. A lot of the effects, including the gore, were done the same way we would have done them 20 years ago. I love it that way because it’s so tactile and practical. Over the years, you can’t help but be proud of it and it’s hard to believe we achieved that crazy effect on a small budget.
Earlier you referred to this as a kids’ movie, and clearly, this is very R rated for a couple of reasons, but I still wouldn’t hesitate showing this to kids of just about any age. I think they’d get a kick out of it. Do you remember your first inappropriate film, and how did it change you?
I love that question. There are a couple. Funny enough, someone brought it to my attention after we debuted at Fantastic Fest, there’s a scene in the movie that people thought was inspired by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where this kid gets all this slime poured on him and he gets transformed into what we call the Beast Alien. I realized that the scene in Temple of Doom with the guy getting his heart taken out, I remember my dad bring that movie home and seeing that scene, and that was at an age when I thought everything on the TV was real, so it made me question my body, the idea that someone could reach in and pull something out of me.
Are we so fragile?
[laughs] Exactly!. I remember sneaking downstairs when my parents were watching Aliens, and it was the scene where Sigourney Weaver is having a nightmare of the chest-burster coming out of her chest. That was another thing that made me question the body as well.
You mentioned slime earlier. I can’t remember the last time I saw such a slime-centric alien movie. It’s like you’re bringing it back, you’re so enthusiastic about it. I remember a lot of toys in a certain era would have slime incorporated into them. Where did that thick, viscous slime idea come from?
It does come from my love of action figures and action-figure lines. It’s a dream of mine to one day create something that could be its own action-figure line. When I was a kid, every line had this slime play set, like Ninja Turtles had a Flush-o-Matic, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe has the Slime Pit, which as a kid was nightmarish to me. If you watch the commercial for the Slime Pit, it’s like a horror movie. Just the concept of putting slime onto your action figures was so weird, and it kind of scarred me a little bit. So I like the idea of our movie having its own centerpiece slime play set—we called it the Slime Throne. To get the consistency of the slime right was one of the most challenging parts of the movie. Eventually, what we came up with was inspired by the slime you get with the Ghostbusters action figures, just that goopy look to it. We needed a consistency that wasn’t too thick or watery; it took a lot of tries. That’s one of my favorite parts of the movie.
You left it open for a sequel. Are you prepared to do one if the gods call upon you to do one?
That is my dream. I created this world, and I see this movie as the beginning of something that is so much bigger. And we have the sequel already plotted out. So if people like it, they should be loud about it, and that will convince people to let me do a sequel to it.
Alright, best of luck. Take care, Jason.
Yeah, it was good to see you again. Thank you so much.
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