Sorry to say it, but we’re not that much less superstitious than our ancestors. Sure, there’s more scientific knowledge today than there ever has been, but how comforting is that to someone in a spooky old house at night, or lost and alone in the dark woods? This is what inspired the good folks at First Name Films to make Mass Hysteria, a movie all about our strange default to superstition. The film follows a group of historical reenactors in Salem, Massachusetts. When a mysterious sickness falls over their tourist-crowded town, the reenactors are accused of actual witchcraft, resulting in a mixture of horror and humor that only an independent film can deliver.
Ahead of the film’s online premiere over Facebook (which begins tomorrow night at 8PM), Nightmare on Film Street got the chance to talk to some of the creative team behind Mass Hysteria, touching on everything from the challenges of indie filmmaking to what makes Salem such an interesting touchstone in American history. You can check out their responses below, but first, make sure to RSVP to the premiere right here!
Grant DeArmitt for Nightmare on Film Street: There’s plenty of horror that uses the Salem Witch Trials as a premise, but no other movie that does it like yours. What’s the germ of this idea, and why were you drawn to this moment in history?
Christopher O’Connell (co-writer): The film for me was always built around how funny it would be if there was a second Mass Hysteria, but in modern times. Because it’s not funny, it wouldn’t be funny, but it ends up being funny because we think it’s not possible. That couldn’t happen here! But really it happens every day and it’s only with hundreds of years of hindsight that we think it’s ridiculous we could have acted that way! Our descendants will study us and be horrified and possibly laugh at our faults. As for this moment in history, it’s such quintessential New England. As in, let’s kill it until the problem goes away. There’s always apologists for every other atrocity in America except for this one. We all agree it was bad to kill innocent people. How can we as filmmakers make that funny? Well we use a city that’s claim to fame is murdering people for making deals with Satan and having fun on Halloween.
“[…] a number of us had worked in Salem as historical reenactors, so we were very familiar with the locations that make Salem so cinematic.” – Matt Perusse (producer, cast)
Jonathan Coleman (co-writer, producer): I always joke that this movie is loosely based on a true story: several of our cast and crew are literal members of the Salem Witch Trials reenactors troupe. Everyone and their mom have made a Salem Witch Trials movie, but we knew we had a one-of-kind spin on it.
Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer): There are generally two types of Salem tourists, there are people who come for the blood guts and frights and the people who come to learn about the severe and tragic history involving an incident of very real mass hysteria. We thought it would be unique to make a comedy-horror in Salem because, in real life, Salem is a very split personality. The amount of tourists that come to Salem every year is staggering, and as a local, you either love ’em or hate ’em. As a tourist, you either love the gore, or you love the history. We wanted to show both sides of Salem in a way!
NOFS: Speaking of Salem, you actually worked with the town to shoot this movie. That’s uncommon, even for Salem-based horror movies, right? Can you talk about working with the town to make this?
Matt Perusse (producer, cast): A majority of the cast and crew either lived in Salem or a neighboring town. Further, a number of us had worked in Salem as historical reenactors, so we were very familiar with the locations that make Salem so cinematic. While Salem must seem so foreign for filmmakers from New York or Los Angeles for us, it was literally our own back yard. Over the years, we had collectively developed relationships with a lot of the stakeholders in town, so working out the logistics for shooting was challenging, but not impossible.
“Everyone and their mom have made a Salem Witch Trials movie, but we knew we had a one-of-kind spin on it.” – Jonathan Coleman (co-writer, producer)
Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer): Living in Salem and having friendships already established with people connected to city leaders really helped us get meetings with the right people. We worked with the chamber of commerce and the Salem film office to really get the city on board with our story, most notably, with History Alive: a company that performs a historical reenactment called Cry Innocent in Salem every summer and fall. Carl Schultz (Franz in Mass Hysteria) works, and performs, for History Alive and was a huge help connecting us with historical sights and costumes that were key to making this project a success. Along with local companies and supporters like the Salem Trolly!
NOFS: In fact, one of the people that helped make this movie directs the Salem Horror Festival. K Lynch, when did you come aboard the project and what was your experience like working on it?
K Lynch (producer): I first became aware of the production through Jeff, Arielle, and Matt’s outreach to the city’s tourism office. I was really impressed with their commitment to the community and respect for its history. I’ve been doing events in Salem for many years, so I tried to give whatever advice I could about the players in town who would be most supportive. Our festival manager Jessica Locke volunteered to be an extra in a few scenes. Once there was a rough cut, I knew I had to get more involved to help amplify its audience in any way I could. It’s truly amazing what they’ve accomplished with that budget. Comedy is extraordinarily difficult, but they nailed it. The film reminds me of Night of the Creeps meets Wet Hot American Summer – two films I absolutely adore. Most impressively, they’ve made a film that delivers on the laughs while preserving the lessons of 1692 in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. In times like these, we really need that catharsis.
Jeff, Matt, and Arielle are some of the most positive and determined people I’ve ever met. Few things are as stressful as producing a feature-length film, but you wouldn’t know it from interacting with them. Truly warm people who deserve to do really big things.
“[…]it’s only with hundreds of years of hindsight that we think it’s ridiculous we could have acted that way!” – Christopher O’Connell (co-writer)
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): Before filming, K Lynch met Arielle, Matt, and myself for lunch one afternoon at Gulu-Gulu Cafe in Salem, and we ended up spending three hours together talking about this project; we immediately clicked. K Lynch brought more marketing ideas to that one lunch, then I’ve had in the two years I’ve been working on this film; they are just that brilliant. K Lynch, as exemplified by the incredible Salem Horror Festival, is an achiever. When they say they’re going to do something, it’s done; this premiere is the perfect example of that. When COVID-19 hits the world, K Lynch finds a way to screen movies from afar. We’re all incredibly grateful for K Lynch and couldn’t think of a better person to partner with on this project.
NOFS: How long were you shooting this movie? Most of the film is set at night, did that stretch production out at all?
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): We filmed for twenty-six days—or nights, if you want the real answer—in August of 2018, and had three days of pickups—actual days—in early 2019. Twenty-nine days is an enormous task for an independent movie, especially one made on the shoestring budget we had. This meant that nearly everyone worked for free, and most of our cast and crew—sometimes seventy people—worked for free; more than half of our team had full-time jobs they worked after filming through the night. During pre-production, people would give us tips on making independent films: “Film in one location, don’t film at night, limit your cast to a handful of people, avoid car chases, and keep your shot list brief.” Mass Hysteria is our punk rock attempt to prove them all wrong, and for the most part, we did—not without its flaws, of course.
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): I remember walking up to Shaun Clarke, our fantastic Director of Photography, on a few nights (most notably our scenes at the corn maze) and telling him we were going to get fifty-five shots that night. He’d politely nod his head and walk away—around day twenty-four, the team wasn’t as kind to my ambitious shot list.
NOFS: I loved your use of gore in this movie, and I think a lot of horror fans will as well. Can you talk a little bit about what went into producing the great gore gags (pun intended!) that we see in Mass Hysteria?
Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer): We didn’t have to look too far to find someone in Salem ready to show us how to make gore in our film look convincing and nasty. We had a killer team of women led by Amber Primm, Sarah J. Mann, and Olivia Gadbois. This film has beheadings, acid burns, vomit, and the best film blood out there (a top-secret recipe courtesy of Sarah J. Mann): it is both safe to swallow and washes out of your clothes—absolutely genius. We are fortunate to have made these great connections with such talented people right here in the horror capital of the world!
“When you make movies for no money, you are forced to find creative solutions to every single part of the process.” – Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast)
NOFS: Indie horror filmmaker Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep fame) said that indie filmmakers must make movies that “exceed their grasp.” Do you agree, and if so, what did you do in this film you believe exceeded your grasp?
Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer): Absolutely, I agree! With Mass Hysteria, we wanted to see how far we could go—how big we could go—with cast and crew, effects and cinematography, and, most importantly, a month-long schedule. Some indie filmmakers might avoid making a genre film because they are “expensive”—I’d say sure, you could call it expensive, or you could call it “a hell of a lot of work.” Jeff and I have never been afraid of doing extra work to make our dreams a reality; attempting to achieve the unachievable is addicting, and once you do it once, you have to do it again; it’s empowering. I think all indie filmmakers have to dream that way—you really can’t take no for an answer if you want to make your movie. Rejections and doubts are everywhere, and the boldest thing you can do for yourself, and your career, is to make your movie anyways. We knew what kind of movie excited us, and audiences like us, so we wanted to give this movie everything we had—we wore hats, oh so many hats. Yes, we are directors, producers, writers, actors, but we were also so much more: we are setting up craft services, pitching tents in the rain, we are the equipment van drivers; we are running out to get toilet paper, or getting bit by spiders in a corn maze (Matt Peruse). We are continually using our last ounce of energy to charge the camera batteries at 7am before you finally get to close your eyes. We are the first to arrive and the last to leave. It takes absolutely everything you have to make an indie movie, and it’s the best and worst thing you could ever do—it’s an absolute paradox—and we can’t stop.
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): Everything about this movie exceeded our grasps. Our previous film, YouthMin—a Mockumentary, exceeded our grasps, and we learned by getting our hands dirty. Mass Hysteria took that idea to the ninth degree, and I think Arielle and I both are glad we did. When you make movies for no money, you are forced to find creative solutions to every single part of the process. Everyone wore multiple hats, and Arielle and I were so grateful to have a team of people who were able to take our ideas and run with them. Like most filmmakers, we often think of feature films like the game “Bigger and Better.” We always want our next project to be…bigger and better. I think our hope is that someone will take notice of what we’re doing and give us a chance to do something with the proper resources, so we don’t have to re-brand our production company to Burning Bridges Productions. The advice I was given was to go out and make your feature film. It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given—mucho thanks to Joel Potrykus for that one. We are a group of friends, with no connections to Hollywood, trying to make a movie and get the world to take notice. So, world…please notice us!
Matt Perusse (producer, cast): Indie filmmakers must always make movies that exceed their grasp! In pre-production, we had sent the script to an established filmmaker, looking for any guidance or feedback. And while he was extremely supportive and encouraging, he made statements like, “Car chases? Special effects? A cast in the dozens? On your budget, this is impossible. You need to scale this back”. And while he was probably right, it fueled us to make the “impossible” possible.
“We didn’t have to look too far to find someone in Salem ready to show us how to make gore in our film look convincing and nasty.” – Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer)
Jonathan Coleman (co-writer, producer): You haven’t experienced hell until you’ve tried to make a full-length feature film with 30+ locations, 50+ actors, 200+ crew, and only enough cash to buy a car. We stretched every penny so thin you could see through them. And when even THAT wasn’t enough, we did a crowdfunding campaign…because we are suckers for punishment.
NOFS: This Wednesday, April 1st, you’re premiering your film live over Facebook, which is incredibly exciting. can you speak to how this virtual premiere came about? Thank you, by the way. Fresh horror content is what’s getting some of us through the quarantine!
K Lynch (producer): The virtual screening came about pretty abruptly. COVID-19 derailed our Women with Guts weekend event in May and left us kind of shell-shocked. With so much uncertainty, it felt like we were just staring into a dark void. Rather than get sucked in, we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity for virtual content. Now that the film is complete, we want to reach as wide of an audience as we can and hopefully get picked up for distribution on a streaming platform. Plus, we could all use a good laugh right about now.
Salem Horror Fest will be streaming horror shorts soon, and on April 3, we’re presenting the new Will Forte film Extra Ordinary on-demand through our website.
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): We’ve had a tough time finding distribution and were nearing the end of our festival run. We’ve been discussing self-distribution options when K Lynch texted me to see if we’d want to live stream our movie on April 1st. Not only was it an excellent opportunity to showcase our film, but it also gave our team new-found energy to try and make the most of this tragic pandemic by allowing people to laugh and be entertained for a night. I’m not getting my hopes up, but if for any reason, a streaming service (or two) finds their way to this event, and then to my inbox ([email protected]), that’d be great!
“[It’s] a film that delivers on the laughs while preserving the lessons of 1692 in a way that doesn’t feel preachy. In times like these, we really need that catharsis.” – K Lynch (producer)
NOFS: And finally, how would you, the filmmakers behind this movie, survive a one-night witch-hunt?
Jeff Ryan (co-director, producer, cast): Have a sit down?
Arielle Cimino (co-director, producer): Take car. Go to mum’s. Kill Phil, grab Liz, go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over.
K Lynch (producer): Survive? I’m petty af. Let them hang me. My death will smite their ancestors with a curse of unimaginable torment.
Matt Perusse (producer, Rev. Hale): A fully-charged cell phone.
Jonathan Coleman (co-writer, producer): I’d shelter in place. DAMMIT I SAID I WOULDN’T CRY…
Christopher O’Connell (co-writer): I would definitely be the ‘hide in the nearest closet’ kind of guy. I felt a lot of sympathy for the lawyer in Jurassic Park. Dude was terrified and for good reason! Which means I’d probably be the first to die as well. Maybe I’ll find a closet that locks.
For more horror interviews like this one, follow us on our our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages. And don’t forget to tune in to the e-premiere of Mass Hysteria, which starts tomorrow, April 1st, at 8PM!