For the release of the slasher film THRILLER, about a childhood prank that goes terribly wrong, I had the chance to speak with director Dallas Jackson about his directorial debut. The film, which had its World Premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival, flips the stereotypical narrative seen in most slasher films taking place in white suburbia, instead focusing on black and Latino teenagers experiencing the horrors of not only a killer on the loose, but racism, violence, and extreme bullying within the confines of Compton.
During our chat, we discussed everything from Jackson’s love of slasher films such as Scream and Friday the 13th, to the message of bullying, and the real-life struggles and implications that many black teens face growing up in inner-cities.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today Dallas. To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about your directorial debut and how the concept for THRILLER came about?
Dallas Jackson: The concept of the movie was really born out of the idea of two things. First, wanting to tell the story of the results of bullying and bullying gone wrong. I’ve noticed in the Black and Latino communities there’s an obsessive amount of bullying and kids that pick on each other because they don’t have certain things or look a certain way. I know that crosses cultural lines but it gets sometimes physical in inner-city communities. I wanted to touch on that and the results of that when you bully the wrong person and what would happen if that person came back for revenge. What if that person left one way and came back the other way as Mike Tyson?
Secondly, I wanted to do my version of Halloween or Friday the 13th or Scream. I really grew up loving the slasher genre and realized that there had never really been one featuring an ethnic cast put in an urban environment or inner-city environment and seeing how that would look and feel like. That’s kind of how the concept was born and brought to life. My co-writer Ken Rance fleshed out the ideas of the archetypes of these movies – you know the good girl, the athlete, the nerd, the bad guy – and put those in a way that makes sense for a Compton environment while also setting it during Homecoming because Homecoming is a big deal.
How did you link up with Blumhouse on this film?
Dallas Jackson: They had read a couple of scripts I had written, one of which was for a remake of a movie at Sony called The Last Dragon. They had really enjoyed the script and wanted to sit down. They told me they had this movie called Get Out that was coming out which sounded crazy! They wanted to find more stuff in that genre space because their biggest horror audience is Black and Latinos. I had been wanting to do this story of my own version of Friday the 13th and started telling them the story that I just told you about wanting to create the idea of THRILLER, which was called VENGEANCE at the time. I had a script that I had written and shared it with them and a couple of weeks later they got back to me and asked if I would be willing to work with them on it and do some rewrites. I said sure and that was kind of how the ball got rolling with them and us officially making a deal for the script.
THRILLER was filmed in Compton, correct?
Dallas Jackson: We shot some in Los Angeles, the majority in Compton, and a little bit in South Central LA.
What was that experience like?
Dallas Jackson: It was fantastic! I did a television show for BET called Rebel with John Singleton so some of the places we shot Rebel we were able to go back and shoot because I knew the owners of these homes on one of the blocks. Compton was great and Compton High was a great campus. The school had an all-American feel in the middle of Compton which looked great. We had no problems except for the third to last night of shooting at Compton High, some van drove by and did a drive-by with paint guns on us. Everybody was screaming because they thought they were getting shot for real but then they realized we were getting shot by paint guns.
There’s a lot of themes within the film, bullying being one of the more obvious ones, as well as ending that leaves things a bit ambiguous. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Dallas Jackson: When you look at the suburban version of Halloween or Scream the [characters] are dealing with their own issues, which in those environments those issues are not the same issues as an inner-city environment. I wanted to have these characters affected by this lie that they told which is coming back to haunt them. They all have their own concerns and things that they’re dealing with as 17 and 18-year-olds and their environments. I wanted to touch on issues like kids feeling like their lives are not worth living or where are they going to go to college when they can’t afford it or the fear of being shot or accidentally killed by a police officer or gang member. Those are things that kids deal with and it’s a tremendous amount of pressure to be a teenager in an environment where you don’t know if you’re going to live another day. I wanted to address some of those things not in a casual way, but by having these characters discuss some of these things. I also wanted them to have regular teenage moments as well like house parties and stuff.
Leading into the second part of your question, I left things ambiguous at the end because there’s a twist that obviously spins things off in another direction and is still the idea that this person that everyone thinks is the killer is still a killer. I wanted to lead into the idea of that they are still in this environment, they have learned the truth of what has happened to them, and so carrying that into the wish fulfillment of maybe a sequel. There are still some things that need to be addressed and are worthy of revenge, still, and maybe exploring that further.
What would you like viewers to take away from this film? Can we expect you to return to the horror genre in the near future?
Dallas Jackson: I would like people to take away the idea of being careful who you bully and the lies that come with bullying and pretending it’s okay. I think it’s a cautionary tale and I think it’s more for a youth audience to walk away with some things rather than grown adults. It’s funny to see grown adults critiquing this movie when it’s not made for them, it’s a teen movie. It’s got messages in there for an audience that is still growing up. Some of my favorite movies that still resonate with me are movies that I saw myself in like Boyz in the Hood, House Party, Sixteen Candles, and Breakfast Club – movies that had other teens in them. There were different things you took away from those movies, there were messages about dating, messages about what your future may look like, the decisions you might make that could affect your future. Hopefully, those are some of the things that people take away from the movie, particularly the teens that see it. Hopefully, it gives them a little bit of insight or they see themselves in one of these characters.
I definitely love the genre space – I love horror movies, sci-fi movies, action movies. I just wrote my next horror movie that I will hopefully be putting together with another financier, or possibly Blumhouse, soon. I wrote it with David Hayter, who wrote X-Men, X2: X-Men United, and Watchmen, and it’s about an urban community that’s being experimented on. That’s about as much as I can say about that for now. The next movie I’ll be doing is this summer, it’s an action movie, a remake, but I can’t say what, but it’s at Universal Pictures and it’s a fun idea and my martial arts version of Die Hard.
THRILLER is now available to stream on Netflix.