All Gary wants is to make awesome home movies with his best buds. All his older sister Samantha wants is to hang with the cool kids. When their parents head out of town one Halloween weekend, an all-time rager of a teen house party turns to terror when aliens attack, forcing the siblings to band together to survive the night in KIDS VS ALIENS
While at Fantastic Fest in 2022, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Dolores Quintana got a chance to chat with co-writer/director Jason Eisener, where they chatted the inspiration behind the film, the importance of the child actors being allowed free reign, and how pivotal music was in the direction and vibe of KIDS VS ALIENS.
The film is related to your short film.
Jason Eisener: It’s loosely inspired by this short, Slumber Party Alien Abduction, which I did for V/H/S/2. When I got approached by Brad Miska for Bloody Disgusting, he’s always wanting to do a movie with me and I think one day I expressed to him [that] we could do a feature off of that short film. I’d love to do it. That’s a world I love.
He had pitched that to Mark Ward at RLJE, who then said that that short film was one of his favorites of all the V/H/S films, and then he would love to make a movie with me and realize that. I met with Mark Ward, and it was amazing. I didn’t even have to put a pitch deck or anything together. I didn’t have to do the song and dance you normally do when you have to make a movie. He just believed in me and was like, let’s do it.
So, it came from that. But I didn’t want to do the same thing that I did in the short film. The short was its own thing and I’m very proud of it. I wasn’t too interested in just doing the same thing or the same scene. So, I took inspiration from it, and then [pulled from] a lot of the things that I’m inspired by right now and made it its own original thing.
First of all, it’s really fast. It’s lean. Narratively it just jumps right into it. It’s going to play well.
Jason Eisener: It’s very important for me to have that kind of pacing. I’m an editor too. I edited the film, and I co-wrote the script. So, I’m approaching editing when I’m writing the script, and then when we’re on set as well too, I’m able to make those editing decisions along the way. There’s hardly anything on the cutting room floor. It’s all there but it was very planned out. The demos of some of the score were made right before we went into filming, and so I was playing the music on set, creating the rhythm of all the scenes and I really wanted the movie to almost feel like a song in a way. It’s very musical but I wanted that feeling of like the rush of a good song, a good musical experience.
That’s the thing with a song. When it’s a really good song, you’re really enjoying it, and something interrupts you but there’s that flow…That’s the thing about the movie. There’s just this flow from the introduction all the way through. So, you were saying that there’s hardly anything on the editing floor? There’s one director who said something similar that he pretty much was editing in his head while he was shooting. Is that something you do?
Jason Eisener: Oh, yes, all the time. That’s something I can say I’m good at. On set, you’re just navigating problems the whole time. You’re being thrown all these curveballs all the time, and there’s always stuff you’re either not gonna have time to shoot or when you’re working with kids, you have only so many hours with them, and you got to get them to school, and you got to do homeschooling with them all. So there would be a lot of times where we’d be like, we’re not going to have time to do this setup or whatever. So, you’re constantly kind of thinking [about] problem-solving with editing, at least for me. But I know I just need to get that shot and that shot, and then I can connect those together to make this moment work. I don’t need to get this other crazy, whatever thing that we’re not going to have time or have to budget to do.
I’d like to add that in.
Jason Eisener: Yeah. So, you’re just making the hard editing decisions at the moment during production. Or someone’s got COVID and they can’t show up. So okay, how can we rewrite this moment, continue the filming of the day, and make it work? And I already got that editing mind space, so I’m solving the problem by editing it in my head.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot of directors whose work I like are starting to actually edit their own stuff.
Jason Eisener: Honestly, I think the best thing a filmmaker can do is edit their own work, at least for some time period, just to learn about their own filmmaking. I edit a lot on my TV show and the last feature I edited was for someone else. It was for Jay Baruchel’s first feature, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, but that was in 2015, I think. So it’s been a long time since I even edited a narrative thing. I’m glad that I did cut KIDS VS ALIENS because it reminded me of all the things that I did wrong.
The best learning experience of filmmaking is editing your own work because you’ll learn about yourself. You’ll know like, Okay, I did seven takes of this thing. But really, I got it on the second take or third take. I could have moved on, you know? I could have saved some time I couldn’t afford and I could have gotten more shots had I not stayed on that one shot. But I’m seeing it. I’m seeing every mistake that I made, and it’s also good to work with other editors as well, too.
It’s such a useful tool to be able to have an editing sort of brain when you’re on set and especially [on] low-budget films.
The kids were all memorable, with interesting faces and distinctive, strong personalities. How was it working with the kids?
Jason Eisener: I love it. It’s so much fun. I feel like I thrive working with kids in a way because I’m always trying to get back to my childhood. I’m always trying to protect it from adulthood in a way. So, working with kids, they can be so excited and so like, down to be paraded and using their imaginations; there’s an energy to that, that I love. One of my favorite compliments I overheard someone asked, they’re like, what’s it like working with Jason? And they’re like, he’s like a big kid. He’s more of a kid than us. I was like, Oh, that’s so awesome.
I felt like so much of this movie is inspired by my childhood, and so I wanted to get back to that. Get back to that feeling. Creating a safe space for [the kids] to feel like they could just have fun and be creative. That energy on set was just so fun, and that’s what I like to do. I always have a plan. I’ll stay up all night the night before thinking of the shots and how I’m going to do something, but then I get to set, and I kind of just throw it all away. I know it in the back of my head if I have to rely on it.
But hanging out with the kids and seeing what they want to do or what ideas they have for the day, it’s always way better than anything that we have in our heads.
That idea of you having a plan, but then you’re still open to impulse and creativity, is good. It shows in the work.
Jason Eisener: Weirdly, I was talking with my partner the other day and I was like, “What was I inspired by? And she was like, you’re watching Ghostbusters a lot [unintelligible]. I was reading everything I could about the production behind it. There’s a charisma that comes off the screen in Ghostbusters with those three guys. There’s this camaraderie and there’s this looseness to it. that, even though it’s shot so beautifully and how Ivan Reitman shoots it is so great. There’s this freedom you can still feel in the performances and how Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are riffing off each other. So, that was something I wanted to try and replicate a little bit or be inspired by with this movie. I wanted the kids to kind of have that freedom. There’s a lot of improv and a lot of just them [being them] in the film.
That’s the thing. What people don’t understand about acting is that what you’re doing as an actor, you’re not just memorizing lines and repeating stuff. It’s part of who you are. You’re bringing everything you have as a person to the role totally, and that’s why it works so well in KIDS VS ALIENS. Yeah. And music? Who did the music?
Jason Eisener: Oh, Andrew Gordon Macpherson did the music. We grew up together in college, and he’s from back home in Nova Scotia. He composed all the music for my “Dark Side of the Ring” TV show. We’ve just spent a few years doing 30 documentaries. We did all the music for them. So, we’re just locked in. It’s the kind of thing where you have that connection with an artist, where you just think something and they just know what you’re thinking.
Creatively, you’ve got this weird mind meld.
Jason Eisener: Totally. We started making music during prep. So, I have it, a whole tracklist of songs going into shooting and then playing those on set, and get people into the vibe of it. But we really wanted the movie to be this musical experience. There’s not a frame in the movie without music. I wanted kids and anyone watching it to be bobbing their heads to the film and enjoying the musical ride of it.
It’s very inspired by some fantasy, and adventure films, which I was trying to reach musically, like, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It’s got the themes too. We created themes like those movies did. We wanted those themes to come through all throughout the film.
It’s all his music except for one song. There’s one song at a party in the movie that was licensed, but everything else is all original music that we made. That was a big part of the design of the film. A musical experience that turns into this haunted house ride.
KIDS VS ALIENS will land in theaters, On Demand, and digitally on January 20, 2023. To learn more, read our capsule review here.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.