By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Who could have foreseen that 2019 would be the year clown took the screen by storm? From GAGS to IT CHAPTER 2 to CLOWNADO to JOKER, these pesky entertainers are everywhere. But WRINKLES THE CLOWN is a little different. This documentary takes a look at one of this decade’s earlier instances of creepy clown climbing out of the fictional realm and into your living room. Director Michael Beach Nichols (WELCOME TO LEITH) assembled his version of the Wrinkles tale through phone calls, Skype sessions, and some intentionally fictional reenactments with the clown and his supposed victims. At last month’s Fantastic Fest we got to sit down with Nichols and pick his brain about clowns, fear, and viral content.
Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
For me, it ticked off a lot of interests that I have. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I’ve always loved scary films and genre films. I’ve always been eager to incorporate genre elements into documentary storytelling. When I heard about Wrinkles the Clown, a friend just forwarded me that CCTV video. I was completely fascinated by it. Not only was this a creepy clown but it was anonymous, and someone was beneath that mask. It was in Florida and I’m from Florida. We filmed a lot in the town where I’m from. Since I’ve moved away from Florida I’ve come to embrace its weirdness. I felt like this could be a really interesting, fun film. Then when I found out that there are all of these voicemails of mostly children calling him, that’s when it broke wide open. This is a story of a myth online and how it spreads. Kids are now changing the speed of transmission of folklore. It just had all of these interesting ingredients.
Ultimately, the way that I made contact with Wrinkles was a Kickstarter was happening. Another filmmaker was trying to make a film about Wrinkles back in 2015. I donated to the campaign, which was not doing too well. I reached out to the filmmaker, because I’ve done several Kickstarters. I offered advice, we had correspondence, but the Kickstarter was unsuccessful, I thought that was the end of it. Six months later my manager came to me with a Wrinkles the Clown project which needed a director. This is insane. This L.A. company had reached out to that filmmaker and offered to help connect them with directors who had done this type of project before. Because I already had a little rapport with the filmmaker, he introduced me to Wrinkles. I had someone to vouch for me and my intentions.
Why are clowns so prevalent right now? Is something going on?
When we started to develop the project we didn’t have a budget, but then the 2016 clown hysteria happened. We wanted to be there tracking that because it felt very relevant. When the first IT came out and was a huge hit, that is when we got financed. As we started making the film, the sequel to IT was announced. It looked like we would be able to complete the film when IT 2 would come out. We did have a strategy of tacking on to the high profile, Hollywood version of clowns. We tapped in to that intentionally.
Are you afraid of clowns?
I’m not afraid of clowns. I don’t feel one way or the other, really. I think happy clowns are kind of creepy. But as a kid, they weren’t necessarily something that got me worked up.
“This is a story of a myth online and how it spreads.”
Because so much of what you have is just voice recordings, how did you set out to build that into a visual film?
The entire premise of constructing the myth of Wrinkles was based on the voicemails that people had left for him. We wanted it to be rooted in how this myth was built online. The first step was figuring out how to use these voicemails to pull out the themes, and then also find people who would make up the interviews in the film. That was a difficult process. We made a friend who was a software engineer who built us this searchable database. We brought on several PAs and spent four months just going through voicemails and tagging them. It was a really challenging project. Over that period of four months we would find a voicemail, try to get someone to respond to us, set up a Skype call to see how they were, and if that went well we would try to see if we could go there in-person. We probably did 35 of those Skype interviews and we used a minority of those in the film.
There are also reenactments in the film, which (to a certain degree) are a lie, which feels intentional. Why did you build these in to a film that is a documentary?
All of that was based on the children’s calls. We always have a voicemail paired with each stylization. When you see Wrinkles and the little girl walking home, at the end of that scene you hear a voicemail saying, “Why are you stalking kids?” There is a whole genre of stalking voicemails, kidnap voicemails. Rina gave us that one wild voicemail about Wrinkles killing kids to use their blood in artwork. We felt that what we were doing was visually representing what was in these kids’ heads. For us it didn’t feel like a lie, but we had multiple examples of little kids talking about it. It was representing the imagination of children.
What’s your relationship with the horror genre?
My previous film [WELCOME TO LEITH] was about white supremicists taking over a town, which it terrifying. That was the first occasion where I felt like I used horror elements in terms of sound scape and score. I used camera movements to create that tension. For me, I’m just a fan. I love scary movies and I love being scared.
What are you afraid of?
Nothing that exciting. I’m just afraid of failure.
Oh, we are getting real?
Yeah. I’m afraid of the banal things that everyone is afraid of. Being alone. Making films is such a public manifestation of what a person does, and in any art you are very vulnerable. Documentaries maybe less so than narratives. But I am very scared of being a shitty filmmaker.