In Jason William Lee’s sophomore feature, FUNHOUSE, down and out backup singer and celebrity ex-husband Kaspar (Valter Skarsgård) is invited to complete in the Funhouse, an online ‘Big Brother’ style reality show. To rebrand his image and tarnished reputation, Kasper reluctantly accepts the offer. Together with 7 other C-list celebrities from around the globe, he will compete for the prize of 5 million dollars. At first, the Funhouse is just as the name suggests, full of wild times, budding friendships, love connections, and brewing rivalries. To everyone’s surprise, the fun quickly turns into misery when the first challenge leaves one of the contestants brutally murdered.
Prior to the release of FUNHOUSE, Nightmarish Conjurings had the chance to chat with Jason William Lee where they discussed everything from an evil panda mascot, the dangers of social media, and more.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jason. How did the concept for this film come together?
Jason William Lee: I directed and wrote a movie called The Evil In Us in 2016. It was playing at the Sitges film festival, a big horror festival over in Sitges, Spain. I was playing at a midnight screening and we weren’t able to go at the time. Henrik Santesson, our executive producer on FUNHOUSE, just happened to be there and he ended up seeing the screening and contacted me through IMDB saying he loved the movie and wanted to make a movie with me. And, of course, I’m like what kind of bullshit is this? [laughs].
As an indie filmmaker you always have your guard up because people obviously promise things that never usually come to fruition, but [Santesson] was the real deal. This was the first movie he really produced because, though he’s a businessman, he is also a horror fanatic. He’s a huge horror fan and he liked The Evil In Us and he liked how we did it. He flew us down to Miami and, at this point, I kind of let my guard down and we started talking about the movie. He had this idea for a movie about celebrities that go into a torture house, basically. I’m never going to say no to getting a second feature made, and so I said yeah, let’s do it, I’ll write it, direct it, and we’ll do this. So, that’s how it started and it was a great experience. I really hope to work with Henrik on more movies. I think he’s an amazing producer and an amazing person.
Can you talk a bit about the mascot and why you decided to go with the design of a Panda?
Jason William Lee: We wanted to have this avatar because we wanted to keep the villain a secret to the contestants and the audience, at first. So, we wanted to have an avatar of some kind and that was the first thing I thought of, let’s have a Panda, They are just so benign and innocent and cuddly, and then [in the movie] it becomes this like evil, sadistic, malicious thing. I wanted to see the juxtaposition of that yin and yang between good and evil. It’s the same in the Panda with it being black and white. I have a lot of yin yang imagery in most of the things that I write.
In the film, there’s a lot of focus on the way in which social media impacts us and the world, and even more so with the pandemic. Can you touch on that a bit?
Jason William Lee: Yeah, we obviously didn’t know about the pandemic at the time, but it’s definitely brought some new things to light. Social media is such a crazy thing. We all kind of grew up with it since Facebook really blew up around 2007. It’s a totally different situation out there now and kids are growing up in a completely different way for the good and for the worse, in some ways as well. I was hesitant to get involved with a film like this cause I have no qualms against horror movies, I love horror movies, I love all kinds of movies, but I didn’t want to do something that is just torture porn for the sake of that. I know some people will judge it for what it is but, at the same time, I really wanted to have some kind of legitimate social commentary about social media and how it can be dangerous and all-encompassing for some people. It needs to kind of be tampered with in a way because it can lead to things that aren’t expected.
Now, I don’t think anything like this would ever happen and I don’t agree with anything that Nero did in this film cause I’m a non-violent person, if you can believe that [laughs]. He makes a few valid points about the moral decay of society and the Kardashianization of society. I have nothing against the Kardashians or anything like that. I’ve never watched their show, but I was looking at Kim Kardashian’s social media today and she has like 220 million followers. I had no idea that she had that many followers and that’s powerful. That’s extremely powerful. Even if you influence just a percentage of those people, that’s an army that you can manipulate in a way, it just depends on what you want to manipulate them for, and to me, that’s fascinating and scary at the same time.
When it does come to the kills, do you have a favorite trap that was used? Were you able to get away with using mainly practical effects?
Jason William Lee: It was a pretty good mixture of practical with CGI. We complimented quite a few of those kills with CG and it was also practical on the day. So, I think that’s what I kind of liked about some of them more than…I won’t give away anything, but I think Gigi Saul Guerrero‘s challenge ended up being one of the coolest visual effects that were practical and also CG. I don’t think we could have done it with either alone so that was cool. And the same thing with the acid bath and whatnot.
Before wrapping this up, I would love to talk about the cast. How did this all come together?
Jason William Lee: The only reason we got Skarsgård is because Henrik lives in Stockholm and was able to sit down with him, and Henrik’s also this amazing guy who doesn’t get star-struck. He basically called up Skarsgård and said let’s meet. He’s totally awesome at that and was able to convince Valter to get on board after he read the script. Valter hadn’t done very many English language films at that point. He’d done Lords of Chaos, I believe, so I think that was his only other English-speaking role. Most of the other cast, outside of Carolina Benefield, who was from LA and Henrik also managed to get, we did a local audition. Gigi is local and she’s like becoming a local icon, so it was amazing to have her. Not only is she an amazing director and producer, but she’s a great actor too. It was awesome for her to come out and be in this movie for us. I love that she is willing to do those things. So, we were able to get her and Mathias [Retamal], as well, who was part of the Luchagore crew. Then we had Chris Gerard who auditioned and was amazing. And I met Amanda Howells when I was being a zombie for a friend in a short film. She was also a zombie and she was totally cool so I was like, do you want to be in this movie? She’s like sure! Dayleigh Nelson has been in almost every film I’ve made, I think. He’s just a local guy and he has an amazing talent. Khamisa Wilsher is an up-and-coming huge talent as well. Jerome Velinsky plays Nero, the villain, and was in my first movie. As soon as I find people that I like working with, I try to bring them back.
For more on FUNHOUSE check out our review here. FUNHOUSE is now in theaters and On-Demand.