Foo Fighters Week continues here at Consequence with an interview with the director of Studio 666. Keep checking back throughout the week for more interviews, lists, editorials and videos — it’s all things Foos, all the time. You can see everything in one convenient place here.
In the sunny days prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, director BJ McDonnell leaped at the opportunity to take a Dave Grohl story and turn it into a horror film starring a little band known as the Foo Fighters — an opportunity to pay tribute to a genre of film that’s been dormant for a while.
“When I was growing up and when I was younger I would watch these movies with The Beatles or The Monkees,” he tells Consequence. “They would make these movies where they were the stars running around in these crazy situations, and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie like that, in my opinion. Nobody really actually dives in and tries to make those kinds of movies anymore.”
Prior to working with the Foo Fighters, McDonnell had an established interest in horror that encompassed directing several music videos for Slayer and the 2013 feature film Hatchet III. In this one-on-one interview, transcribed and edited for clarity, McDonnell explains what horror films he and the band initially connected over, how the film’s wildest cameos came together, and what it was like directing a group of actors who don’t normally do a lot of acting.
I want to start off by asking how you got involved with the film.
So basically, you know, there are two producers I was working with on a different project, Jim Rowdun and John Ramsey. And they also work with Dave on Sound City and some other projects he does; they always work with him. Dave had this idea to make this horror film and he went to the guys and said, “I want to get a director for this.”
He had a pitch, they sent it to me. I looked at this pitch and I wrote some ideas that I thought would be cool to incorporate with his ideas. I made basically a lookbook and we had a meeting, passed over my lookbook, went over movies that I loved and movies he loves and what we wanted to accomplish with the film and that was it. We basically just got together, threw ideas around, and there we go.
In terms of those movies you guys discussed, do you recall off the top of your head any of the particular touchstones?
We were talking about directors that we loved and movies we grew up watching. I always mentioned John Carpenter films were a big influence on me, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies were huge for me. Amityville Horror, Exorcist — those kinds of films.
We basically agreed a lot on those same kind of movies we all grew up on. That was it, once we got going with that, we talked about the tone of what we wanted to accomplish in the house, the throwbacks of the things we wanted to do with the movies. Eighties movies were the movies I grew up on loving; those kind of molded me.
A film like this really plays on the audience’s understanding of not just the band as a whole, but the individual personas. What was your approach in trying to highlight those?
I wanted to make sure that everybody got their own time in the movie. I also made sure in the get-go, which was also for me, a way to let the guys relax because they’re musicians, they’ve made the music videos before. When it comes down to acting and knowing dialogue and memorizing dialogue and hitting your marks and doing all that stuff, it’s not their world. It’s more of our world.
I told them, “You know, play yourselves. We want to see who you guys really would be. I will always remind you guys what’s happening or what’s going on, but be yourselves and say what you would actually say, if you were to see what was happening here or what’s going on over there. I want to hear what you guys have to say — your true selves.” I think it’s really fun to actually play on that in this movie and we did that mostly.
In terms of that, were you approaching it like, “Let’s do one take where we do the lines from the script,” and a second take where you improv it through?
Well, the guys, I will give them a lot of credit, they were pretty good at memorizing what we were doing. They really did their homework and it was kind of awesome. They would come in and know for the most part what we were doing. Sometimes we would nail the lines, sometimes we wouldn’t. Most of the time I was just like, “Don’t worry if you don’t hit it, just go for it.” I never really kept it as a strict rule to make sure “let’s make sure let’s get this script dialogue in.”
I didn’t really care about it as long as we didn’t go off-topic or off subject of what the movie was trying to get to, where our scene was going from point A to point B. Let the guys be the guys.
You don’t have to name names, but did you find at any point that you were saying, “You’re doing great at being yourself, let’s amplify it and put a little more zest in it?”
That was a constant. Once I would get a certain take from somebody I would always try to make sure — maybe this person didn’t quite get this excitement, maybe they didn’t look scared, we need to make sure they were actually looking scared, you would have to remind them.
A lot of times as they were doing their thing, I would just yell it out: “Oh, you just saw this thing, you’ve got to run for your life, you’ve got to be scared!” I would totally yell and try to get them all amped up, I would run over if they were underneath the thing and bang on the thing right before the take and watch them jump. Just try to get the reactions out of them that way. A lot of times I would have to do that, but it was great. The guys were just totally cool to do that. Because sometimes actors don’t wanna do that. [Laughs]
Be excited, you mean?
Or just say, “Don’t tell me how to act.”
This film was a bit of a surprise to everyone, as it only got officially announced a couple of months ago. But I think what’s really surprising, at least to me, is that most of this film was shot pre-pandemic — just because it is kind of a perfect pandemic premise, with the single location.
Was there a particular reason that things were kept under wraps for so long?
We just wanted to make sure we kept the excitement. When people start hearing somebody’s doing something, everybody starts to expect that and they expect to see things. It’s more fun to try to keep this as contained as possible, so all of a sudden when this is announced, it’s a big surprise. “What? What is this?” We’ve kind of captured it with keeping it under wraps as much as possible.
There were a couple of hints here and there where people were like “we heard this” and “we heard that” and luckily it didn’t go too far, but we wanted to have more of just a surprise element to let everyone know this movie actually existed.
Luckily we had a lot of good crew and cast and we all kept very quiet about the whole thing. It wasn’t the easiest task, but we did it. It was tough too because we shot before the pandemic, got shut down, and then had a whole six months of not doing anything. I was editing remote over Zoom with an editor — other than that, there was a lot of time going by where anything could have been said. Luckily, we were fortunate enough to come back and finish the project.
I think I remember reading that there was this point where there was enough edited together where people were able to be like, “Oh, it’s actually a real movie!”
That was the cool thing. When me and Dave were talking about the project, I think he was just expecting to get a couple of people together, and not a whole film production crew. Just get two dudes with a camera and a boom guy and some special effects and go shoot this movie. But my whole approach with this thing was, “Let’s make a movie.” If we’re gonna do this, let’s really do this. Let’s make it as big as possible and as big-looking as we can. And I think we did it.
In terms of effects, there’s both practical and CGI in here. What were your favorite kind of effects to incorporate?
It’s always fun doing the blood effects and all of the gore effects — that’s always great when you’re making a movie like this because it’s a fun movie with fun kills. It’s not like it’s a super serious movie where everyone’s like, “Oh my god,” they’re taking home this horrible dramatic — well, maybe some people will, I don’t know, but there’s pretty nasty stuff.
One of my favorite things — this is a spoiler-y thing, but people have seen it in the trailer — I always loved the kind of effects like say, in the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when they open up the ark and all of the spirits come out.
For this, we shot the effects that you see practically in a pool, kind of like they did some of the effects for that, where we actually had a physical head and face — it was made with this demonic face, but we would cover it up with all of this cloth and we would flow it with the puppeteer through a pool of water, and we would shoot that from each individual angle of each little scene in that pool part. [Raiders] was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up — I thought it was a lot of fun to recreate that.
This is a gross question, but fake vomit versus fake blood — which one do you prefer working with?
Fake vomit smells so bad because it’s usually made of some weird soup — the nastiest. Fake blood is tough because it’s so sticky and it gets everywhere. I think I’d rather use fake blood because you can eventually wash it off, but when you smell that fake puke stuff — it just makes you want to vomit. It’s just so gross.
You’ve got some really fun cameos both with Will Forte and other actors, not to mention that Lionel Richie scene. How did you assemble those people? Was this a situation where Dave Grohl just has phone numbers and he calls them and they show up?
It was kind of a collaborative of that. For instance, Whitney Cummings and Dave knew each other, so we knew she’d be great for the part she played. Leslie Grossman, I worked with on American Horror Story, she was kind of the comedic relief in the season that I worked on, so we brought her in to play her part and she was great, we knew she’d be perfect. Will Forte — I’ve worked with him a bunch. I did the MacGruber movie as a camera operator on that and we’ve been friends ever since, so I called him and bring him in.
The music people, people like that, that’s pretty much a Dave thing. I think Dave knows everyone. His Rolodex is probably the size of my house — all the people he can call. It definitely pays to have a buddy who knows all of these people.
Lionel Richie was written into the script — we actually didn’t plan on that. And then we actually contacted him and were like, “Would you do this movie?” and we were all like “I don’t know…” and sure enough he came in all game to do it and ready to go. We were lucky.
Did you have a backup idea? If it wasn’t Lionel, who would it be?
We had so many weird backups of things. Not so much for that one, but there was one character at one point where we were talking about John Travolta. We were also talking about Vin Diesel instead of another character, and I won’t even name the other characters, but there were all these talks of bringing in these certain cameos of people, which was hilarious. It would have been very strange to have them in. I’m pretty happy with the way it played out, that Lionel came in. That was perfect.
In terms of shooting at the house where they recorded the last album — was there any significance to that, beyond Dave thinking it would be a cool place to shoot a horror movie?
I guess significance-wise, whenever we were doing pre-production, they were still recording Medicine at Midnight, so while we were curating the whole script and coming up with all of the things to do, I would get to go to each room and figure out where I wanted to shoot what scene.
We kind of kept true to where all their instruments really were when they were recording — where the mixing board is and where certain things were — the cables and all of the stuff in the house running up the staircase, and things like that.
I thought it’d be really neat to keep that a familiar thing for the guys too, to really let them feel like they’re almost stepped back into recording. Maybe they hated that because they’d been there for so long recording that album. But there’s something to be said about familiarity and keeping things, especially with guys that aren’t actors. If you keep it in that realm, they step into what they’ve been doing for a couple of months, so I thought that was important.
Absolutely. Does that also carry forward to the house getting significantly trashed over the course of the film?
When I walked in, I will say it was surprisingly clean. [Laughs] It wasn’t so harsh as we get in our movie; those guys did a good job cleaning, or they have somebody come clean up for them. It wasn’t bad.
This isn’t the first time that’s there’s been a story about a musician being tempted by the devil. I’m curious — for you, what does it mean to revisit it in this context?
I like all of that stuff because I’m a huge metalhead and punk rock nerd. It does go hand and hand — why mess with a good thing? It’s kind of great to have those elements and bring them in together. I don’t think it would work if you were like, “Let’s make a classical music album,” but then Satan shows up. Maybe in an A24 movie or something, we could do that; we could go that route and make it very moody.
I think it all just comes hand in hand. I love movies like the original Trick ‘r Treat when that was — back in the ’80s and seeing that. Sammy Kerr with the guitar with lightning blowing people’s heads up. [Laughs]
Hard Rock Zombies was another one — it was just the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tell you the plot but I remember seeing this dude eating himself and then the very last thing you see is his skin going into his skull and his skull sitting there. It was the weirdest movie, but I think it all goes hand and hand and it’s a lot of fun. We’re just lucky to be able to do this and recreate those kind of things we grew up with.
Why do they go hand in hand, do you feel? Where does that relationship come from?
You know, I guess it’s just the lore of heavy metal. Look in the ’80s where people were talking about Satan and playing their albums backwards — “this heavy metal album made my kid do this or that” — there was all sorts of stuff, imagery that happens with a lot of heavy metal albums. I think it just kind of gets that rap, in my opinion. I guess it’s not a bad place to base your subject matter on. But we just had fun with it; we didn’t go serious. So that’s a good thing.
Of course. You might as well lean into it if it’s going to exist.
Right! I think so, why not? I grew up loving the Slayer album covers and Cannibal Corpse and those things, and they’re out of control; their imagery is crazy. You could look at those album covers and you could base a movie off of that. They’re pretty amazing.
Studio 666 premieres in theaters on Friday, February 25th.