By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
I NEED YOU DEAD!, the first feature from filmmaker Rocko Zevenbergen is not an easy film to slap a label on. Here’s the plot: Estevan Muñoz stars as Dood, a young punk with artistic aspirations whose life spins out of control after overdosing on a bizarre party drug called “dummy gummies.” With his third eye permanently pried open, Dood finds he’s created a literal monster out of his own self-doubt. Under the monster’s sway, Dood’s life and his budding relationship with dreamgirl, Pal (Sidra Morgan-Montoya) become a nightmare of self-mutilation and spewing black bile. However, that’s just part of the story. Filled with TROMA-esque gross-outs and sight gags, the film takes a number of unexpected and shocking turns, transforming from a veritable live-action cartoon into something much, much darker. Despite its low budget trappings and obvious overtures to Lloyd Kaufman‘s patented over-the-top tastelessness, I NEED YOU DEAD! is a surprisingly deep and heartfelt film. An expectation-defying cult classic in the making, it must be experienced to be believed.
Riding high after the film’s successful New York City premiere at Brooklyn’s Film Noir Cinema, Zevenbergen took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Rue Morgue about I NEED YOU DEAD!, his upcoming projects, and how making micro-budget features is a fun, if not profitable, alternative to psychotherapy.
Rocko, thanks for taking some time to speak with Rue Morgue. Let’s start by talking about your background. How did you get started in film? Who do you consider your influences?
I got into filmmaking at a very young age. I’m kind of of the YouTube kid generation. When I was a kid, YouTube was a very new site, and I saw people uploading videos with toys and stuff. I was like, “I want to do that!” I’ve just been making videos ever since I can remember. One of the first things I uploaded got 40,000 views. So I asked my mom, “How many people fit in a movie theater?” She was like, “About a hundred or two hundred people.” And then I was like, “How many people is like 40,000?” She was like, “Oh my God! That’s crazy!” So I was like, “I’ll just do this forever! Yay!” That’s just actually what happened! My ten-year-old self just decided what my 24 year-old self would be doing and I’m still obeying him.
As I got older and became a student of film, Back to the Future was formative. It made me realize that I wanted to make feature-length stories and not just videos. I think that’s the one that hooked me. Evil Dead was my gateway to horror and got me very intoxicated with the genre. It was also the gateway to low-budget filmmaking and what is possible on a low budget. And then, TROMA introduced me to the idea that, not only can you have low budget but no budget and make something that’s fun and has a worldwide audience. So I became a student of Lloyd’s and worked on one of his movies, Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm, a couple of years ago. That was kind of my film school. Then, I took that knowledge and made I NEED YOU DEAD!
How did you come up with concept for I NEED YOU DEAD!? Is there an autobiographical element to it?
I had been making lots of short films which were very much me paying tribute to things that I loved. That was always fun, but ultimately, never extremely satisfying. It was good to test the waters going from making little videos to trying to be a real filmmaker. I made kind of a tribute thing to Halloween, and I made a short film called Meat Lovers which was definitely a tribute to TROMA. I was preparing for my first feature, which was originally called Cop Killer, and it was kind of my tribute to Hobo With a Shotgun because I love that movie so much. [That idea] has to do with the police arc that’s in I NEED YOU DEAD! As I was getting into it, I thought, “If I’m going to do a feature, it can’t just be a tribute.” There’s a layer missing here. That classic phrase of “write what you know” was floating around in my head. I thought, “What the hell’s going on in my life that’s scary?” because I knew that I wanted to make a horror-comedy. I was just really depressed at the time. So it was like, “Let’s work with this. How can I make my depression that I’m dealing with right now – which is scary and is something I keep in the dark – how can I bring that out into the light but do it in a creative way?” So Dood and the creature were born.
How did you bring all these different elements together within the context of the film’s plot, and, without giving too much away, the framing story that everything takes place in?
In terms of Dood and the creature and the cop story, it’s really a funny thing. I think in a lot of ways, the cop story found its way in there because I wanted it to be like a really exciting feature with a lot of stuff going on. I really liked that story and I wanted to find a way to infuse it. I wanted the themes of what was going on with the police to reflect Dood’s story and the other narrative that we don’t really reveal in the marketing for the film. There’s a huge spider-web graph that I have of how everything connects. In this crazy way, it all connects and I think, at face value, it can seem a little sporadic. I do feel that there is a tying thread to all of it that does make it feel more cohesive.
The film takes some pretty unexpected turns into very serious territory dealing with the sacrifices artists make as well as the trials they put those around them through in pursuit of their art. How are audiences reacting to the film?
Ultimately, I was just kind of toying around with the idea, but once I had a clear concept of how I really wanted the movie to trick the audience and for this other story to take place, that’s when the fire lit up in my heart and I really started rallying he troops. I immediately trashed the version of the script I had been working on and started right from page one again with the grander concept in mind. Form the moment I wrote that first page I knew that people who watched the movie were either going to hate it or they were going to love it. I really love hearing both reactions. I don’t care if people like it or not. I just want to hear what they have to say about it. All I care about is that they’re talking about it. A lot of people go into to it wanting something specific, which I definitely set up. I want to set up people who are really hungry for that ’80s horror nostalgia. I wanted to disappoint them. I wanted to show them that I could make that movie, and you’re really enjoying it right now, but I’m going to take it away because I think that’s interesting. I’m also that person who loves watching ’80s horror movies; I wanted to almost like frustrate myself and trick myself and challenge myself and not just make that simple throwback movie. The people who love it, they’re digging it from the beginning as nice, fun popcorn movie and then it takes this big shift and they’re like,”Whoah!” They love that they’ve been duped. They become very engaged with it, and they don’t know what to expect anymore, and they’re on the edge of their seat. I love both sides of people’s takes on it.
I NEED YOU DEAD! really explores some heavy psychological themes.
As somebody who considers themself an artist, when I have hard times, emotionally, I often get down on myself. Then, I’m like, “Shut up! You’re an artist. You have a very easy life. Imagine if you were working construction or something hard like that.” But then, I NEED YOU DEAD! is kind of just to show that, a lot of times, people who are artists are just so troubled that the only way they can cope with what they feel is by being extremely expressive. Often, I envy the construction worker who can just go to work and do what they’ve gotta do and come home and be with their family or find some peace in life in a simple way. With this movie it kind of feels like I’m stripped naked in front of a hundred people every time we show it. I can’t watch it anymore. I have to leave every time and come back afterwards to see what people think.
One of the most interesting things about the film is that it not only explores how an artist can suffer for their art, but how the people around that artist are also adversely affected. That’s a truth that’s rarely addressed.
That’s a funny thing. A lot of the things that happen in the film that are bad and frustrating and evil are things that otherwise would never really leave my head in day to day life—things I would never say and situations that I would never get myself into, but they are the things that I fear maybe one day I will if I don’t exorcise these things now. All of the things that you find in the film are basically my greatest fears that I really don’t want to happen. If I just do them on screen and make that version of my fears exist, then it’s kind of like it’s already happened. It’s almost like those bad things can’t happen because I already made them a physical thing with the movie.
Tell us a little bit about your cast.
Estevan Muñoz who plays Dood, the lead actor, is a good friend of mine since high school. We’ve done many projects together. We met in line for a concert. We were both there three hours early, so we both immediate knew that were both very dedicated to the arts and to the art that we loved. He’s a hip-hop artist. We made music videos together for a while. I really respected his writing, and he really respected me as a filmmaker. As I was writing I NEED YOU DEAD!, I was sharing the script with him, and he would read it and [offer his opinions]. Eventually, I gave him a draft after I came to the realization of what the movie really had to be. He was like, “Okay, now this is actually interesting,” and he started getting involved and started to produce. I really had him in mind for Dood for a while. I still had him audition against a lot of people, but he was a shoe-in. He was the one!
The others were all just people that I met off [the talent website] Backstage. I put up a posting and said, “Come on out!” We did auditions and the best actors got it and they’re all still good friends. In fact, Dood and Pal, the couple in the film, actually started dating on the set, ironically enough. They’re still together to this day almost three years later. Pretty crazy!
Were there any particular challenges in shooting the film?
We didn’t have a lot of money as you probably can tell, but, ultimately, our team was so young and green, and people were just so excited to be part of making a feature—basically, it was the first feature for everyone working on it. Everyone was doing it for the love of the art. Everybody was so motivated purely by their love of what they were doing and not money. Nobody was relying on this movie to feed them. It was a very relaxed environment and people had a lot of fun. We shot like hell. It was four weeks, six days a week, 14 hour days, and on our days off, the core crew and I were scrambling to make it work. Personally, I’m a believer in that once you start shooting principal, nothing else in life matters until it’s over. I don’t believe in just weekend shoots and just chipping away at it. Everyone’s gotta drop everything and it’s movie time for one month. It was difficult, but it was all love, and everybody killed it!
You’re currently working as Lloyd Kaufman’s assistant at Troma. Do you anticipate that you’ll continue working with Troma, or will you be moving on to different sorts of projects?
That’s the funny thing; I NEED YOU DEAD! is not actually a Troma movie. Lloyd is in it, which is wonderful. Lloyd helped promote the movie a lot in our fundraising stages. But it’s not a Troma movie; it’s a Bad Taste Video film which is our little independent studio. Nonetheless, now that I’m working at TROMA and I’m Lloyd’s assistant, I’m currently booking screenings for his new movie Shakespeare’s Sh*tstorm, and, once I land a theater, I’ll add on at the end, “Hey, do you wanna show I NEED YOU DEAD!, too?” I’ll kind of get it in that way! Troma has been a huge help for me in a really wonderful way and continues to be. I think I’ll always have a finger in Troma and just be wanting to collaborate in little ways. [They’ve] been been around for almost half a century, which is nuts! They are the oldest, longest running independent film studio in the world. They’re truly independent and not owned by some company. It’s been the same two guys since it was founded. I just want the same story for Bad Taste Video.
To me, I’m a filmmaker, yes, but I’m also kind of an entrepreneur. I’d really like to see Bad Taste Video become not Troma, but share some of their legacy of educating young people who don’t have the resources to make films themselves and taking the exclusivity out of filmmaking and getting rid of that whole shroud of it being expensive and that you need so much experience—just making more that family-oriented kind of style that Troma is known for, but with our own artistic vision. For me, having 20 girls in bikinis cross the screen is not my thing. I love Troma movies, but that’s not my thing. It’s a big part of Troma’s thing! [Laugh] I NEED YOU DEAD! gets pretty serious in a way that I don’t think a Troma movie normally would. It’s funny, and there’s some tongue-in-cheek, but I want the audience engaged in a serious, thought-provoking way that’s not just all slapstick.
What are your plans for distribution?
We signed with Mutiny Pictures. They are up-and-coming and they have a handful of other notable titles coming out next year. They’ve been helpful. They’ve got us on to some streaming platforms, so we’re on Vudu and Amazon. We should have DVDs up fairly soon as well for people to purchase, which I’m happy about. They’re getting us a little press. They got Fangoria to drop the trailer, which was great.
What’s next for you and Bad Taste Video?
We are deep into the development of our next movie, currently titled Flapjacks which is narratively a simpler movie than I NEED YOU DEAD! I NEED YOU DEAD! was definitely my “I’m 19 and I just want to say ‘F the world’ movie.” That’s exactly what my 19 year-old self did when I wrote the script. That was great, but now I want to try something different. I think it will be equally challenging and equally exciting to make a movie that’s a bit more like a pop song. I’m a sucker for a good pop song! I’m a sucker for a Back to the Future. I’m a sucker for an Evil Dead 2 — something that’s just fun and snappy and doesn’t depress the hell out of you by the end! That’s the goal. We’re making Flapjacks which has to do with a fast-food manager who is a little in over his head in his little world to the point that when a new item ends up on the menu that may be not be totally safe for humans, sales are a little bit more important, and things backfire for him. We’re deep into the script [and] I’m really excited about it. It’s a hilarious script and it shares a lot of qualities with things like The Stuff or Poultrygeist. But, at its core, it’s an extremely unique movie and an incredibly moving picture about ego, and honestly, my fuckin’ mommy issues! So get ready for that! Come film [my mom] watching the movie. Film her reactions with the green light cam. That’ll make for a good Rue Morgue exclusive!
Is it safe to say that filmmaking is cheaper than therapy?
Maybe I should stop making movies and just go into therapy! [Laughs] Maybe that would be cheaper! I don’t know!
Any parting words for all the aspiring young filmmakers out there?
Yeah, there’s the obvious advice of just do it. Go and write something. Stop thinking about it. If there’s something that’s in the way of you making your film, stop doing that thing even if it means you have to quit one of your jobs or drop one of your classes. Make some compromises. Don’t eat out three times a week; maybe it’s going to be ramen for a little while. If you’re young, you can kind of afford to do that, so do it! But everybody says that. If you’re reading an interview with me, you’ve probably read a lot of interviews with more important people and you’ve heard this advice a million times. So the truly unique piece of advice that I can give is, if you have the opportunity to come to New York next year, Flapjacks is your film school. You do not need any experience. You can come and be a P.A. on the set. If you work hard, then you’ll get to go up in the ranks and try different jobs. You can mess up on our movie and work jobs that you would normally need years of experience to have. That’s what TROMA was for me. That’s how I learned how to make I NEED YOU DEAD! Hit me up on social media or at my email and I’d love to find some way to get anyone reading involved in the film so they can come learn, make mistakes, and be a part of the Bad Taste Video family.