It’s a joy to talk to people who are enthusiastic about what they have made. The team behind the low-budget horror film Mass Hysteria clearly loved making it together. I talked to a few of them recently, and it was like hosting a virtual reunion: Christopher O’Connell, writer; Matt Perusse, Samuel/producer; Jeff Ryan, Turner/director; Geena Santiago, Paige; Arielle Cimino, director.
The film was lots of fun, it felt much longer than it was. It took place in the tourist part of Salem, Massachusetts, in a living history exhibit with a stage performance. I asked those present whether any of them had worked in that kind of arena. Matt responded, “Yeah, it was based loosely on an organization in Salem that does true authentic historical re-enactment of the Salem witch trials, and I was on the board of directors for that organization. So I have some experience, and some of the other cast members have because it’s sort of a small historical acting world here. So we definitely have ties to the historical re-enactment part of the film.”
So considering Matt knew that world I had to ask: are tourists really that disrespectful? Arielle stepped in: “Carl Schultz, who plays one of the Austrian tourists, still works for History Alive, and he said that during one of the shows, someone actually yelled out ‘just kill her already’, so we literally just took that from a real-life thing.”
Matt asked where I was calling from, curious to know how familiar I was with New England and its history. I’d not been to Salem, but I spent a summer in Boston when… well I found myself blushing that it was as long as thirty years ago! So I turned my questions back to them, still on the subject of the locale. The film had been first released at Boston Independent Film Festival, and with MA right there in the title of the film, I asked whether everyone was from that area. Arielle and Matt are, she told me, and revealed the background that brought them all together: they all went to school together, the same college on the North Shore in Massachusetts. Jeff added, “the majority of the cast and crew had lived in and around Boston, I went to Salem for six months, I think a handful of people from the crew lived in Salem, and we’re all kind of from the North Shore in general.” I had had the impression from the film that the whole team had made a homage to the region, while at the same time mourning how its history is often not taken seriously.
Matt was back on his tourist recruitment drive: “Well if you make it to Salem, if ever you get back here, especially at Halloween, it was pretty accurate. The only thing that’s different is that there are really ten thousand more people. In terms of the heightened theatricality of everyone and the craziness, that’s pretty much on point. So if you make it back, come on Halloween. Don’t leave it another thirty years.”
Interestingly, everyone in this video call had been involved in an earlier film, YouthMin, a comedy set in a Bible Camp. I’d not heard of YouthMin until preparing for this interview, so asked them: should I track it down? Jeff modestly said “I think we all love that one. But it’s a sore point right now because we’re struggling with some music licensing issues to get it out and released. We all love it to death. It was our introduction to making feature films when we’d all only made short films until then. It was like forty people renting a camp for a summer, trying to figure out how to make a movie; and then this one was like our step up and pretty over-ambitious for what we had, resources wise. We went from shooting for twelve days at a camp with minimal cameras and lighting, then on Mass, we had like a hundred people on set for the biggest day and we shot for thirty-five nights total.” Christopher continued “we all love YouthMin and we really hope everyone gets to see it one day. Totally different to Mass Hysteria.”
Both directors were on the call, including one who had acted in the film, so I asked about the directing partnership: did Jeff direct everything except the bits he was in, or what? Jeff left it for Arielle to answer: “A lot of the scenes that Jeff was in he spent the time multitasking, stepping into different roles, switching hats, and I think a lot of why we wanted to do this together was partially for that reason. But also we had done before and knew that this was such a big task, so having one director was going to be probably next to impossible, to manage the number of people. We constantly have to wear many hats. But I feel by now Jeff and I are almost like siblings: we can talk and laugh about things and get things done. I don’t think that it was a hindrance that Jeff was acting in the movie: it makes his job harder. Especially his passion for the camera acting and cinematography that was prevalent throughout the whole process.”
I asked Arielle didn’t she want to get in front of the camera herself? “I am in there, as a ‘light extra’. I like the off-screen roles: there’s one scene where I just say ‘her!’ I can do that.”
Jeff said, “In the last movie we didn’t really know what we were doing. Not so much didn’t know, but we were learning while doing it and we didn’t go to film school, so we’re trying to learn together. Everyone involved is empowered to have and share an opinion, I hope, and they all have a part throughout the process. I would typically start the day talking to the camera department, Arielle would go see the cast and work with them; and basically, we just split the responsibility between us. I don’t know how we would have done it any other way with our resources. Arielle also has a gift of watching a scene and if she finds it not funny, she can make it funny. It’s true! It’s one of the best parts of working together: you have trust for someone like Arielle. When Geena and I would go into a scene, wondering how we’re going to make it work, she would find time to work with us and make it work. Well, having Geena helps too.”
Geena, who hadn’t really spoken until now, took the cue: “Not to simplify your jobs, but there was a clear difference in Arielle has the emotional and cast mindset, while Jeff had the technical and visual mind-set. So having them both together was a dream come true. You have someone who understands when a scene isn’t working visually, and when it isn’t working emotionally or isn’t connecting. They’re great together.”
Now that I had Geena’s attention, I asked what was it like carrying the story, playing a lead without much film experience. “It was fun! I loved working with that entire group of people. We did YouthMin together. So there’s a lot of trust, and I know I’ve probably told them multiple times how nervous I was, and they trusted me wholeheartedly, which obviously would eventually make you trust yourself. You can feel confident in the fact that if these people are willing to put in a tonne of time and money, and let you do what they think you do best, it does feel like a fun project you’re doing as friends, rather than making a serious film which better be good!”
I found it interesting that the writing was more astute than funny; the situations were funny, rather than the dialogue. The writing covered mob psychology, a dig at history enthusiasts, the difficulty of getting into Broadway, and a lovely stab at tourism: a lot to put into one story. I asked Christopher to tell me about the writing process. “The writing process included very much Jeff and Arielle. We started with two things. Firstly, the idea, something about Salem’s historical re-enactment; and we always knew it would be really funny if another ‘mass hysteria’ happened. Then we also knew we wanted a female lead, and for Geena to do it. Everything else grew from there: the toxic masculinity, the mob mentality, how history repeats itself… it really just grew naturally. And we’re also making fun of actors too.”
As they got laughing about Geena’s naivety about acting early on, I commented I wished my son would come out from his room to talk to them, as he acts in a drama group and would love some advice from actors who had come from where he’s at. Geena’s instant advice: “Just keep doing stuff. Even if it’s just you and your friends, just keep at it.” (I proudly shared that they did keep going, during the lockdown, by making a YouTube soap opera.) Jeff said “I’ve always said if I didn’t get paid, I’d still want to act. And you know if you feel that way, you’ll always act. Do it if you love doing it.” Matt added that “you have to make opportunities for yourself. It’s rare that you’ll be asked to do something and get paid, so you have to constantly seek out opportunities and never say no. Keep learning and growing and making those chances for yourself. It sounds like he’s already doing that.”
I asked whether the team had kept working during the pandemic too. And like a gang of friends, they told on each other. Jeff said “Chris wrote a novel, and is working on a second. Chris won’t tell you that. Geena made one of the funniest music videos I’ve ever seen.” I’ve got to see this: it turns out it’s an ode she wrote to her new car, and her boyfriend added a beat.
Arielle confessed she’s not been very creative, but going to get married to one of the other actors! Luke Deardorff (who played Charlie in Mass Hysteria) then showed his face and waved.
This is the third interview I’ve done lately where a group of people got together and giggled about their experience. I teased them: is it that you’re proud of yourselves, or is it delirium? Jeff answered straight away: “Both. I would say this: when we told people we were going to make it for a certain amount, we got laughed at left and right. We were insane even trying to. And then we made it for one eighth that amount of money. If people knew the truth behind the resources we had, they’d be impressed: it was just a bunch of people who wanted to make something fun, and they did. The amount of people who were dedicated, working full time, and then spending twelve hours at night, in downtown Salem; it’s just beyond. We’re all just happy we got to work together as friends, so we’re extra thrilled that the movie is getting out and getting some press.”
Arielle continued: “I think if you take it too seriously, especially this movie, it might not be as enjoyable. That’s true about comedies, especially dark comedies. There are so many hours of work, so many people donating their time and being your friends, you have to make it fun. Not only do they want to make something meaningful, but people want to have fun: that adds a special ‘family’ quality.”
I find it very interesting when serious topics are given a humorous treatment, and I commented that the sharp dialogue and the pacy action combined really worked. Arielle said “that comes from how we admire films that do that really well. We’ve been inspired by films where they take something serious and make it fun. For Jeff and I, it’s really hard for us to be completely serious about anything. We’ll laugh about anything.”
I asked about their inspirations. Jeff said “we’re obsessed with Edgar Wright. When we first started, we asked each other could we make something like his films but with no money? We actually did a test for this movie where Matt, Arielle, and myself acted and it’s horrible. Quite funny, but we were just testing if we could do the style. We didn’t want to be limited by money, just wanted to make something like the movies we love. Hot Fuzz is the funniest movie ever. This isn’t at the level of those movies, but we’re aiming for that style. And of course Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 and so on.”
Then my son did come in, tentatively. I sat him down in front of the camera and Matt gave him such wonderful encouragement: “Wait a minute! I recognize you from that soap opera on YouTube! Is that you?” So they talked briefly about what it’s like to be filmed – via Zoom – versus theatre. I’m really humbled and grateful for the rapport and boost my boy can get from other actors like this, a small example of how people with common interests can lift each other up.
I like being able to give small independent films some exposure: those involved deserve it, regardless of the genres, qualities, and styles. There is a huge variety out there, and perhaps I can give them a little lift too.