What Makes 'Cat Sick Blues' Tick? Pt.1 - Interview with Director Dave Jackson

If you've read our glowing review of the dark (yet at times, humorous) horror film 'Cat Sick Blues', it should come as no surprise that following our viewing, we were absolutely compelled to reach out to and interview key members of the cast and crew. Starting with director Dave Jackson, we gain insight into what drove him to making a film like this one, the work involved in seeing it to the end, and of course, what his favorite kind of cat is.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in film.

I guess I've always been pretty addicted to movies, especially horror. As a kid, anything with creatures in it — like the Gremlins films and The Dark Crystal — or scary, violent scenes — like the heart removal in The Temple of Doom — fascinated me. I grew up in a small Australian suburb with a crappy local video store, then moved to an even smaller suburb the Netherlands with an even crappier video store, so I would rent the same stuff over and over again. I feel like my baptism in true cinematic horror came on a rather intense night living in Holland. I was at a friend's place, and for some reason, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and Child's Play 2 were on TV — all in the one night. We watched them back to back. A fucking terrifying triple bill. And I loved all three films. The Shining and Nightmare on Elm Street 3 remain two of my favorite films.

When I moved back to Australia as a teenager, my love of horror grew and I was given more opportunities to broaden my tastes. There was a late night show called The Graveyard Shift (I think), and I'd tape everything off it. That's where I got into Hammer horror. I also remember seeing the Friday the 13th movies for the first time and, weirdly enough, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. For some reason, my parents, who in the past were very strict with my movie viewing, began to let me rent whatever I wanted. I absolutely annihilated the horror section. I rented every single horror video at our local store at least once. I started to pick up on filmmakers I liked — John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna. Discovering Troma films was a big moment too. Perhaps the biggest findings in that video store were the Evil Dead films (especially Evil Dead II), Peter Jackson's Braindead, the original Chainsaw Massacre, and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. I had no idea what Tetsuo II: Body Hammer was, and couldn't find the first one anywhere, but its frenetic style blew my mind. Shinya Tsukamoto has since become one of my favorite filmmakers, if not my all time favorite. 
As DVDs started appearing on shelves, I saved my bucks to buy imported movies. Living in Australia, a lot of stuff was heavily cut, so I'd have to save for ages and buy American DVDs. I remember saving up an outrageous amount of money (at least for a fifteen year old kid) for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It was worth it. Around this time, Italian horror became my go to genre. Argento, Bava, Deodato, Lenzi — they all became favorites. But it was Fulci who I worshiped, which probably comes across in my unhealthy obsession with gore. I still remember getting my older brother's friend to buy The New York Ripper for me, because the store (understandably) refused to sell it to a teenager. 
Around this time, I was also heavily into comedy shows like League of Gentlemen and Big Train, and started filming my own skits and short movies that took their inspiration from shows I liked and the horror I was watching. No one else at my high school was really into filmmaking, but I managed to force a few unlucky friends to smother themselves in gore and act like buffoons. A few of those friends, who I've known for over 15 years, appear in Cat Sick Blues. The stuff I made back then is truly embarrassing nonsense. The thought of anyone watching those films makes me feel physically ill. 
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How'd you come up with the idea for 'Cat Sick Blues'? Any films or events in particular that inspired you?

I'm a big cat fanatic, so I've always got cats lurking somewhere in my brain. I've always grown up in a house with way too many cats, which I think warped my brain as much as my love of horror did. As a little kid, I was a bit of a weirdo. I collected cat figurines and statues. I had a whole shelves full of them. While other kids were getting Transformers toys and video games, I was making requests for cruddy porcelain cats. I wish I still had them. They would have made for great set decoration. 

I can't remember the exact moment when I thought of the idea for a Catman killer, but I can think of a few events that might have led to it. I remember watching the Argento film Inferno, and, though I love the film, there's this super silly scene where Daria Nicolodi is getting pelting with cats that are clearly being thrown by someone (probably Dario) off screen. That scene always cracked me up, as well as making me cringe. Cats just seem to be the least scary thing in the world. In close proximity to that Inferno re-viewing, I was watching a lot of Jean Rollin stuff. I watched his film The Nude Vampire. It's not one of his better works, but there's a disturbing use of these creepy animal heads worn by characters. Early in the film, a woman's being stalked by the animal head people, and it's very unsettling. That imagery combined with cats being freshly on my mind is what I think made the Catman idea pop into my head. When I wrote the first draft of the script, before Andrew Gallacher got involved, it was a very straight-laced simple slasher. I thought that was a little boring, so I gave it to Andrew and that's when things got insane.
As we started planning the film and working on the new script, there were many films that consciously and unconsciously influenced Cat Sick Blues — too many to name, but I can bring up the big influences. Maniac and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were obviously both huge influences. I love how those films center on the killer. I wanted the griminess that Lustig brought to Maniac, and the unflinching brutality McNaughton and Rooker achieved in Henry. In terms of the pacing and the way the film is shot, I took a lot from the films of Takashi Miike, though not so much what he makes now. The way Miike used to frame shots in his golden age of the late 90's to early 2000's was incredible. He'd often set up a big, drawn out wide shot that would omit some vital part of the frame and play out a scene taking a long time before cutting away. It created such tension and frustration. His film Gozu was a particularly influential film, not so much in its narrative but its uncomfortable tone that somehow manages to be funny and upsetting simultaneously. Another massive influence was John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. There's a lengthy sequence towards the end of the film that's strung together by a track by composer Matthew Revert with constantly shifting layers. That was directly inspired by Carpenter's score. And finally, an overarching influence over the entire process from start to finish was Bad Boy Bubby. I'm not sure how widely seen Bad Boy Bubby is out of Australia, but it's a mind-boggling piece of cinema. It's directed by Rolf De Heer and shot by 31 different cinematographers. It has this fantastic, constantly evolving tone. It starts so bleak, but wraps things up on a strangely sweet note. As dramatic a shift as it is, it feels totally authentic.

 

We've read multiple reviews on your movie, each with their own take on what they felt the core theme of 'Cat Sick Blues' was about; what's YOUR take on it?
 

Even Andrew and I disagree on what the core theme of Cat Sick Blues is. I'd prefer not to influence people one way or the other, but, for me, the core theme has always been about a loss of innocence and a loss of childhood, both things my generation seems desperate to hold onto all while we turn into broken horrible people. Haha! That sounds pretty dramatic for a film that includes a strap-on cat dildo. There was a lot going on in Andrew's brain when he wrote his draft of the script, and I wouldn't even want to try and explain his thoughts of themes, but I think Cat Sick Blues comes from a mixture of disgust and fascination with how we behave as human beings. 


What did you learn from making this film that your next project will benefit from as a result?

Well, I certainly learnt the absolute agony, stress and terror of making a feature film. Before we started shooting, making a feature, in my mind, was the equivalent of making ten short films, which didn't sound like too big of a deal. But it was nothing like that. The stress of continuity, the enormous level of organisation and management required (even for a film with as tiny a budget as ours)... it honestly felt like it would never end. That's not to say I didn't love making it, but damn, it was hard. Not just for me, but for our very tight knit crew, almost all of whom worked on this for nothing. They are truly fantastic friends.
Many of the things I'll be taking into account for my next film were things I always had in the back of my mind before even starting production but kind of pushed to one side. The next thing I make will be something of a smaller film with less locations and actors, so I can concentrate on getting the little details right. When you're so close to a production, you notice every little mistake you've made, so I want to give myself less opportunities to make mistakes next time around. I also want to be a little more experimental and loose on the next film. I stuck to our script and my storyboards perhaps too religiously making Cat Sick Blues.


'Cat Sick Blues' is a violent film, filled with intense graphic images and sequences. Do you think this will limit it's chances at seeing a broad release? Would you compromise the current vision (via censorship) in order to appeal to, or reach out to, more people?

I don't think its violence will limit its appeal to people, but yes, it could potentially limit its reach if censorship enters into the equation. I absolutely abhor censorship. It infuriates me to think that there's a bunch of people that get together and decide what adults get to see. What a bunch of shit. If no one (or no animal for that matter) was hurt making a film, then how dare someone tell me I can't see something. It boggles the mind that an outdated media theory still dictates what we can and can't see. In the USA, things are better than here in Australia. Anything can be released uncensored. Sure it limits a film's release, but it can still be seen. In Australia, if something is cut or banned, that's it... at least until the morality police decide we're mature enough to see it. It also seems totally random what is banned or cut here. I guess it all depends on what mood they're in. So many times, I would rent something from the video only to find it was hacked to smithereens by the censors. Half the horror section was cut to shreds. It pissed me off back then, and it still pisses me off now. I would happily limit our reach if it meant the film would be released uncensored.   


What were the biggest hurdles during production?

I think for me it was just keeping my sanity in check. As you can likely tell from the minuscule budget, I don't make films for a living and work a normal job. I found it extremely difficult to switch back into regular work mode in-between shooting days. All I was thinking about was filming. I also pretty much did not sleep during that whole period. I'd wake up in a cold sweet in the middle of night, even months after shooting, thinking I'd forgotten a shot or broken the line or made some sort of horrible continuity error. In terms of the production days, the most nightmarish shoot was, without a doubt, the club scene shoot. We had an extremely limited time on location, a shit ton of extras, and a complicated effects shot. I honestly thought I was going to have a heart attack that night. If you see photos from me from that shoot, I'm drenched in sweat, looking pale and terrified. I'm sure all the extras thought I was nuts. Somehow, we got it done in time. Then we had to wait an hour in the rain for some guy to come and open a door so we could shoot an exterior shot. Ridiculously, after all that stress and effort, the effects shot from the club scene didn't even make the final cut. 
Another intense shoot was the two days we spent out in a place called Ararat — the location was an abandoned insane asylum. It had taken us months to get permission to shoot there, and almost the entire location budget went into these two days. Most of the cast and crew stayed at a small house down at the base of the insane asylum's grounds. Our next door neighbor was a crazy drunk who approached us with a bleeding jaw and six pit bulls circling him. He told us he was planning to rob our cars. The insane asylum shoot was quite an experience. The rooms were like something out of The Shining and the property was huge. The most stressful night came when we were shooting a very difficult scene only to find the asylum had been double-booked with some guys who were running ghost tours. They were taking a whole heap of people through the building while we were trying to film. Shian — our star — was covered head to toe in deformed make-up and had the brilliant idea to scare the crap out of the people taking part in the tour. Taena — producer (and about a thousand other things) — shone a torch across Shian's face as she stood outside, perfectly timing it as the ghost tour people walked past and got the fright of their life. 
If I could also add — just so things aren't entirely about the stressful shoots — our final day of shooting was amazing. On this final day, we shot a big massacre scene where four people are killed. We were shooting with an unreliable camera that was known to have major meltdowns, we had limited takes with only a few sugar glass vases, and a crazy amount of big effects. But everything, for once, went well. It was an absolute joy to see Liz Jenkinson's gore effects come to life. She had brought in a fire extinguisher for the giant blood geysers, and watching the throat slit effect with blood coating the entire crew and room, I felt my inner horror fanatic teenager yelping with glee. It was a fantastic day and the best possible bookend for production.  


Is there anything about the film you wish you could change?

I think any director probably has a laundry list of stuff they would change about their film. But it's too late now, so there's really not much point in changing anything. When a film's done, you need to move on, and, hopefully, learn from your mistakes. I think that's the biggest problem I have with filmmakers like George Lucas and Walter Hill going back and "fixing" their films. Just leave it alone! It's done! I'll probably eat those words in years to come when I go back in time and insert a CGI cat to replace the puppet in Cat Sick Blues


Whats the current prognosis with regards to distribution? DVD and Blu-Ray in the works (we REALLY want to buy this NOW)?

As much as I'd like to tell you something concrete, there's nothing to report yet. All I can say is I hope the film is released on Blu-ray, DVD and online in some time in 2016. The only way this can happen is if people spread the word, share the trailer, ask sites to review the film, and generally get excited about Cat Sick Blues. If there's no demand for it, there's no release. We're also being very careful with its eventual release. I want it to be done properly, not a slapdash job.  


Would you be down to work with a toy company to bring us a "Catman" action figure? What about an official Halloween costume?

I would love nothing more than to have a Catman action figure or Halloween costume. Unfortunately, the cat mask is not owned by us. We were given permission to use the cat mask by a Japanese company called Ogawa Studios. So outside of the film's release, any other sort of tie-in stuff would likely create some issues with rights. But who knows? If someone else could deal with all the boring paperwork, I'd be up for it. I would also be up for releasing the cat penis dildo as a sex toy if anyone's interested. 


It's known that you're a cat lover; what's your favorite breed of cat, and why?

Special breeds suck. Just nab yourself the rattiest stray you can find, or visit an animal shelter and pick up an old, toothless, one-eyed cat. Then pamper the hell out of that cat. The white cat in Cat Sick Blues is my cat. His name is Smokey. Stupid name for a white cat, I know, but I didn't name him. He was a stray showed up in the backyard of a sharehouse I lived in. He was filthy, hungry and psychotic. Now he's a plump, lazy house cat who's only worry is his ridiculous allergies (he's allergic to everything, including fleas... we actually had to write into the film that he was sick, because he allergies flared up during production). That to me is the best sort of cat. The bastard son of a hundred strays. Just like Freddy Krueger.  


Favorite horror movie?

Can I cheat and say two? They're both pretty obvious choices, I'm afraid. My favourite horror-comedy is Evil Dead II. I know that movie back to front. Every frame and sound effect in that film drips with unhinged creativity. I'd never seen anything like it when I first saw it; this perfect blend of madcap, Three Stooges-esque lunacy, and disgusting, gooey horror. It's a film that could only exist in that specific place in time with a young, hungry, wild cast and crew. Many have tried to capture its energy, but few have succeeded. My favorite more serious horror film is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My god, that film has aged well, and I think it only gets better with each subsequent viewing. Again, another film that, in many ways, is a fluke. The most talented crew in the world couldn't recreate that film. It was the insane conditions, its low budget and the tension on set that made it so much more special. I recently saw Chainsaw Massacre on the big screen. It was a typical modern audience who probably weren't all that into horror. They force-laughed their way through the film, desperate to prove that they were above its 'dated' scares. But in that infamous moment where Leatherface first appears, the laughs stopped and you could taste the fear in the room. What a film. 


Any tips for inspiring directors?

I'm probably not the best person to give tips. It's not like I make my living off films or am successful in any way. But... my tip is to ask yourself the question, 'Do I really want to put myself through this?' I don't mean don't make a film, but seriously consider whether this is the film you really want to make. I've got no clue where this comes from, but I remember someone telling me that an idea is only really worth pursuing if you've sat on it for a long time — I mean, a long time, at least a year or two — and after that long period of time, you still want to make it. It's easy to get bored of an idea and if you make a feature, you'll be living it for a stupidly long time. It needs to be something you absolutely have to make. That also doesn't mean that what you make is automatically worthwhile, and even if it is worthwhile in your mind, there's always people who will hate what you do. In fact, most people will probably hate what you do. It's perhaps the hardest thing to get used to. Even though I like to pretend it doesn't bother me, a nasty review hurts a lot. I heard Joe Swanberg talking about negative reviews on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast — he suggested to not only ignore bad reviews, but ignore all reviews. If you spend too much time thinking about why people liked, or didn't like, this or that about your film, then I think you're in danger of losing your way and trying to please everyone else. It's incredibly important to be extremely self-critical. Anyone who unabashedly loved their own work... well, I have to question their sanity, and they'll never improve as filmmakers. Be as harshly critical of yourself as you can, listen to feedback of honest people (that means people who won't lie to you) with similar taste in movies, but try and drown out the hatred around you.  


Thank you for your time, all the success to you in the future!

Thank you. I can't tell you how much your support means to us.