BJ McDonnell has the IMDB page of your dreams, with credits on Scrubs, War of the Worlds, Hatchet, Halloween, CSI, Heroes, MacGruber, Star Trek Into Darkness, Avengers: Age of Ultron, This Is the End, Ant-Man, American Horror Story, Shazam, Malignant, and many many more. Over the past two decades, he’s diligently worked his way up the Hollywood food chain, moving from grip to camera operator all the way up to director, working everyone from Steven Spielberg to Slayer in both the film and music industries.
Now, for his second narrative feature film, he’s taking on his biggest challenge yet, wrangling six rockstar non-actors who didn’t learn any of their lines. That movie is called Studio 666, the actors are the Foo Fighters, and it all worked out in the end.
Based on a story concept by band leader Dave Grohl, Studio 666 stars all members of the band (Grohl, Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett, and Rami Jaffee) as themselves. The band is being pressured by the studio to make a new album, their 10th, and they want it to be special. So they end up at a creepy old house with a morbid musical history hoping to capture a magical, distinct sound. What they capture instead is a lot of brutal murders.
“Right off the get-go, I told the guys, ‘Hey, we have the script, [but] don’t think you have to memorise the whole thing,’” McDonnell told Gizmodo over a video call. “’We’ve got to follow the certain templates and the subject matter, what’s going on, but honestly, be yourselves, because there’s no better character than the one that you actually are living in. That’s you. Play who you are.’ And I think once we let the guys know that, they felt relaxed a bit more so they could just be themselves. That’s the fun thing about this movie, people actually get to see the guys playing themselves.”
McDonnell got to be himself too. Though he had an entire band worth of strong personalities, he was given the reins to make the movie as he pleased. Case in point: originally, Grohl imagined the film as raw and gritty. But McDonnell’s long experience in the film industry gave him the confidence to think bigger.
“When I met with Dave, I said, Look, if we’re going to make a movie with you guys, let’s make a movie with you guys,” McDonnell explained. “I wanted to make sure this movie had a very feature film look to it. I wanted to make it look as big as it possibly could because I’m used to using the right tools, like the cranes and the Steadicam and the dollies, which actually creates the vibe of what’s going on during a scene. Because really, camera tells a story — and with me doing what I’ve done, and still do, I incorporate that with this movie. I wanted to make sure that we had that feel to it, you know? And so I think that’s what I really brought to the table on this, just making sure that the vibe and the tone of what was going on visually, camerawork-wise, also kind of worked along with the script.”
That script didn’t start as a script, of course. It started with a one-page treatment Grohl came up with which was then expanded upon not only by the Foo Fighters but writers Jeff Buhler, Rebecca Hughes, and McDonnell himself. “The story was all about this band person in the ‘90s that [had a] tragedy in the house and that’s kind of what it was,” the director said. “My idea was to try to give it a deeper meaning of what’s going on in the house.” And so he envisioned a backstory where this band from the past not only died there but were the spirits that currently haunt it.
Another of McDonnell’s ideas? Practical effects. Lots of them. But after hiring Alterian Inc., the company behind Zombieland, Army of Darkness and Hocus Pocus, he realised that idea didn’t quite mesh with the improvisational vibe on set. “It’s a long process to make these practical effects happen,” he said. “[So] you can’t veer too much off of that. You have to really stay on board with where you’re going and how it’s going to happen because those things are hard to accomplish… So we followed the script [for that].”
Basically, the whole movie was a balancing act — not just the improvisation but the effects, performances, and mythology of the world. All of which work because the Foo Fighters trusted McDonnell completely. “They let me basically take the reins as the director full force,” he said. “They weren’t crazy about, like, being so possessive about what’s happening there. They were all about hearing my ideas and we just did it. It was rad.”
That’s the feeling McDonnell wants fans to have. And though he knows not everyone is comfortable going to the theatre at the moment, he thinks whether you see it in theatres or not, you’ll have a good time watching it no matter what. “I wanted it to be fun,” he said. “I wanted the kills to be fun to where people can cheer and be excited about it… Hopefully, wherever you see it, it kicks arse for you and you have a great time. Just get everybody together, drink up, and have fun.”
Studio 666 is now in theatres.
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