Last year, I reviewed Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories, which I called a “gory, entertaining watch from beginning to end.” The film scored so well that it even made HorrorGeekLife’s best of 2016 list. So, I was excited when I got the opportunity to speak with Nathan Thomas Milliner, the director of the segments “Murder Death Killer” and “Fear, For Sinners Here.” In addition, I talked with the cast of the segment “Murder Death Killer,” which will soon be published.
Along with filmmaking and writing, Milliner is a highly accomplished artist. His site, Rebel Rouser Art features his original work, comics, contributions to Horrorhound Magazine, and his Scream! Factory release art, including Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, The Funhouse, The Burning and The Howling.
HorrorGeekLife: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! How did you get involved with the Volumes of Blood series?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: P.J. and I met at a convention I was a guest at back in 2012. He had seen my first film, Girl Number Three, at the show and really liked my work. In 2014 he had me as a guest at his film festival in Owensboro, KY and, shortly after, he asked me if I would be interested in directing a segment for this anthology he was putting together. I had only directed one film at that time and was itching to do another so I jumped on it.
He sent me three scripts and I chose one titled “The Encyclopedia Satanica.” The script showed promise but, being a writer, I requested that I be allowed to rewrite it. Thankfully he was fine with that, so I reworked the whole thing to make it fit my sensibilities and vision and came on board as director/co-writer on that piece. “The Encyclopedia Satanica” turned out to be the critical darling of the first Volumes of Blood and the producers, when setting up the sequel, planned on having me return.
Their goal, as they put it, was to make every segment in Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories as good as “The Encyclopedia Satanica,” which was very flattering for them to say. P.J. offered me the opening segment to write and direct, so I came up with “Murder Death Killer.” Then, when one of the other writers was no longer involved with the sequel, I ended up writing a directing a second segment titled “Fear, For Sinners Here.”
HorrorGeekLife: I actually mentioned in my review of Volumes of Blood: Horror Stories that “Fear, For Sinners Here” was my favorite segment. With “Murder Death Killer,” do you have any fun on-set experiences you can share?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: Being the director, you are usually so busy and so focused, juggling everything and everyone. It can sometimes make things way too hectic to have those fun moments because, even when you are on a “break,” you are solving problems and thinking beyond the set and what will happen in the editing room in post. You have hundreds of things racing through your brain and are all about getting everything you need and getting it right. Especially when on a time crunch. We only had 2.5 days to shoot “Murder Death Killer” and it was a challenge.
That being said, “Murder Death Killer” was a lot of fun to make, as the cast and crew were all so nice and were like family. And many of them are genuinely hilarious people. Warren Ray had most of us in stitches the entire shoot as he is just a naturally funny character. His relationship with Barbie Clark was magical and those two just clicked from the moment they met at our first rehearsal. The rehearsals were really the most fun I had on this movie. They were laid back, which I like to make these meetings more about becoming friends and learning to trust one another more than anything else.
I’d say the funnest stories from the set were random workers showing up at the warehouse who had no idea a film was being made there. We lost our location 4 days before the shoot and this place was a last minute replacement. He told us we’d have the place to ourselves and everyone would know we would be there. But all weekend long, people would come in and look at us weird or raise hell.
Shooting Barbie’s dance scene was hilarious. I’d say the funniest thing I can recall is from the opening scene where Vallie (Barbie) pulls the two revolvers out of the glove compartment. Barbie mimes pulling them out and delivers her line, “That’s why we brought these, right?” Warren dead faced just asks, “Brought what?” Barbie was not prepared for the ab lib and then in that southern drawl accent Warren very smoothly says, “You’re gonna have to break ’em out and show me darlin’, I don’t know what kind of imaginary guns you got.” There are many moments like that we have caught on film.
The moment I definitely could not stop laughing was during Warren’s confrontation with Atticus, where he gets a serious wound to the mouth, Warren began ad libbing at the end of each take, “Call an amberlance.” Mimicking that YouTube video where he says ambulance incorrectly with a slur. Every time I said cut you can hear me lose it.
HorrorGeekLife: It’s great that even under so much pressure, you managed to have a good time on set. I loved the look of Atticus Crow. How did the creature design come about?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: Atticus Crow was based on a character seen in the original film that P.J. came up with. Not in name, but it was his creation in a bare minimum way. The original film opened with P.J.’s homage to Friday the 13th and Jason Voorhees with a 2-3 minute piece called “Murder Death Killer 3: Dead of Autumn.” When I chose to do a modern day remake of the faux 80’s film series “Murder Death Killer,” I knew the killer in the film needed an upgrade.
The killer had no name in the first film, not an origin story. All he was, was a killer in a burlap scarecrow mask. It was basically a burlap sack with one eye hole and a stitched mouth. Sort of like Jason in Part 2. I wanted to develop the character more so I gave him a name. Atticus popped in my head and then Crow was just because he was a scarecrow. I wrote the origin story and the design came out of that.
The backstory was that Atticus had been a worker at a mill in the 40’s. So I decided to sort of steam punk him up. To give him a blending of a scarecrow with an industrial flare. Coming from a comics background, character design is just an important key to storytelling. You need to make characters iconic. They need to stand out. So I started sketching what would become the face of Atticus. A burlap sack infused with bolts and gears and other machinery.
In the original script, the location was an old abandoned mill overgrown with grass and such, so Atticus was meant to blend in to the machinery overgrown with straw and grass. So I added the sprocket eye (sort of a nod to the Tusken Raiders from Star Wars), the big bolt on the side and the spark plug. I tattered the bottom of the bag so we could see the zombie mouth below. I wanted this nasty looking mouth.
Because Starks had been homaging Jason, I decided to base Atticus on Kane Hodder’s Jason from Part 7. So, to keep with the industrial look I added chains (a Jacob Marley nod) and really the costume was just a rework of the costume worn by the killer in the first film, played by Eric Huskisson. My direction to Aric Stanish was basically to sort of capture that brute force of Kane Hodder. I think he nailed it while bringing his own thing too. The mask was sculpted and made by Trick Or Treat Studios co-founder Justin Mabry, who goes by the name Night Owl, one of the best mask makers in the world. He made the devil mask in my segment from the first Volumes of Blood. The costume was put together by Vallie herself, Barbie Clark. The weapon Atticus uses was inspired by a real old tool I saw online. A two-handled corn stalking knife. I wanted something Children of the Corn-ish and my friend Tim Miller of Dirtknap FX made the replicas for filming.
HorrorGeekLife: Is this the last we’ll see of him?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: P.J. has expressed a desire to make a feature film version of “Murder Death Killer.” I love Atticus and think he is awesome. But at the same time I kind of feel like I made this short and that’s enough for me. All I could really do is just make another throwback 80’s slasher film and those don’t usually work well as the slasher genre has sort of worn it’s welcome out with modern audiences. I don’t think there is much of a demand for “new” slashers. Fans tend to just want a new Friday the 13th or Halloween films. Until they actually get them, then they want to tear them apart and say they aren’t like they used to be.
So, while it would be fun to make a feature Atticus film, I am not sure I’d have any interest in helming it. Maybe writing it, but I don’t think I’d want to direct one. Honestly, the characters in this film I am far more interested in maybe doing something else with are Vallie and Dick. I loved their chemistry and would love to make a rock-n-roll crime flick with them. To me, they were the heart and soul of “Murder Death Killer.” Not Atticus.
HorrorGeekLife: Vallie and Dick were like a rockabilly Bonnie and Clyde. What was the overall inspiration for “Murder Death Killer?”
Nathan Thomas Milliner: When P.J. offered me the opening sequence to write and direct for the sequel, I was given an open slate. I didn’t have to stick to the house that all of the other segments were tied down to, so I started to try to figure out how the movie needed to begin. The one thing I noticed while looking at the scripts for the sequel were that a link to the original film was missing. P.J. didn’t add The Face stuff until much later.
One of the popular things about the first film was when the fourth wall is broken and the film became meta with P.J. and several other cast and crew playing themselves on a fake movie set. That part nearly stole, or did steal, the original film. People loved it and that was a big absence in the sequel. So I figured the opening segment could be a chance to go meta again. To do the movie within a movie thing again, but make it fresh. Since I was the only returning director and a lot of the cast and crew in the first movie were killed off, I figured maybe I could play myself or someone in the film. P.J. took a lot of shots at himself in the first movie based on his critics and what they said about him, so I did the same thing.
I took shots at myself (although, I might add, P.J. removed those moments from the final cut). But my idea was I could commentate on the current trend in fanboy trolling and hating. Each day I deal with fanboys who are so full of anger and venom and spend more time tearing the genre down than adoring it like I do. They are a cancer. So I decided I would play a hater fanboy and I would mock this behavior. I decided to cast my VOB 1 star Kevin Roach as my partner in crime and I knew I needed a segway into this meta scene. What is a hotbed topic with fanboys in horror? Remakes. So I thought, why not remake “Murder Death Killer?” So that was the starting point. I decided to write and direct the opening ten minutes of a remake of “Murder Death Killer” and have these fanboys trash it.
I love crime cinema, so I chose to bypass the usual group of horny teens and made the opening a heist in a sort of From Dusk Till Dawn fashion. The movie is all about paying homage to 80’s slashers, so there is a lot of Friday the 13th in there, but also something like The Burning crept its way in there. The film also pays homage to my friend Carty Talkington’s 1994 crime film Love and a .45. Vallie quotes Rory Cochrane’s character from the film when she says, “I was born on a green light Daddy-O!” When I asked Carty if he was cool with it, he said, “Are you kidding?! Of course!” I am a huge rockabilly and psychobilly fan and originally wrote the part of Dick for Dead Dick Hammer, whose music is played throughout the short. Dick was too busy on tour when we shot, so I recast with Warren which turned out to be a magical thing.
Warren and Barbie’s casting was also very inspiring. In their rehearsals I would get inspired to re-write stuff and add things to fit them as they are both such real-life characters themselves. I was happy to come back to the short. Shortly after writing “Murder Death Killer,” I wrote “Fear, For Sinners Here” and fell in love with it. I ended up swapping “MDK” with another director to make “Fear.” I shot “Fear” in March. Then, with around 2 months before the shoot, the director dropped out and I offered to return and direct “MDK” too. I had to recast the whole film and go through all of the pre-production. And the premiere for the film was set for October and I had only 20 days for post production. I am so happy I got to come back not only to work with the cast and crew on “MDK,” but to sort of take a stab at a different kind of filmmaking that I hadn’t done before. A more rocking, fast and funny ride. As for the meta part, which we later dubbed “Haters,” I asked P.J. to direct so I could just focus on acting in it.
HorrorGeekLife: It sounds like it was hectic and a lot of work, but it’s been paying off in a big way. Horror Stories has been a hit with critics so far. What has this early success meant to you?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: It’s meant the world to us. I was very concerned with the sequel because its put up or shut up time. It either defines your original success as a fluke or a happy accident and you stand to just fall right on your face and have people question your skill or talent. So we were very serious about upping the game and making the sequel bigger and better in every way. This movie had to be as good or better than Volumes of Blood. No one expected the first film to be as well received as it was. We were literally stunned at how well it did. So the sequel was much more intense in pre-production.
When I saw the first scripts turned in, they were just not good enough and I had to fight for a writers meeting to have all of us sit down and talk about each script, line for line, and voice our dislikes and concerns. That really helped the film a lot. I think I even threatened to walk from the project if that meeting didn’t happen. On the first film, I just didn’t want to make the worst segment. I was just trying to prove myself. All anthologies have the good and the bad. I just didn’t want to be the one with the bad one, ya know? But on the sequel, I wanted the whole film to be consistent and as great as it could be. So to have Horror Stories getting such great reviews has been a big breath of relief. We weren’t just a flash in the pan.
We not only did it again, but a lot of people are saying it is superior to the first. I tend to agree. I think this one is an all around much more solid effort. Personally, I am very thrilled as “Fear, For Sinners Here” has, in some ways, mirrored the reactions of “The Encyclopedia Satanica.” That has been satisfying, as I didn’t want to come back after big success with “Satanica,” only to flounder on Horror Stories. Having worked with an all-new crew and having edited my segments on this one, it just helps me realize that I need to keep moving on this filmmaking thing because, until Volumes of Blood 1, I never really saw myself as being a filmmaker. It’s validating.
HorrorGeekLife: I can’t wait to see what comes next. What is your favorite segment within Horror Stories?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: Well, the bias answer is my other segment, “Fear, For Sinners Here.” I love that film. I saw it as the companion piece to “Encyclopedia Satanica.” “Fear” is more of who I am as a filmmaker than “Murder Death Killer” is, although I have a very special place in my heart for “MDK.” But outside of my shorts, my favorite is “Feeding Time.” All of the shorts are strong and bring something great, but John William Holt’s short about an insurance salesman down on his luck on Thanksgiving befalling a young woman who claims to have a monster in her closet and wanting his help was wonderfully done.
Jason Turner reworked P.J.’s script and he and John handled it so well. It was not my favorite of the scripts, but they just rocked it with their special touches and talents. The cinematography and direction is so well done and the film has two of the very best performances period. Caleb and Shelby really impressed me and I would work with either one of them in a heartbeat if I had the right role for them. They were so good and really handled some wacky material with a sense of reality which was very impressive. All of the filmmakers on this film are so gifted. I expect some really great films to come from these guys in the coming years. Pay attention to them.
HorrorGeekLife: I absolutely have to agree. There was some serious talent involved with the film. P.J. Starks has teased about having a third installment of Volumes of Blood. Is this something you would be interested in?
Nathan Thomas Milliner: I know he has talked about it and I think he wants to do it in 2018. I have no idea where I will be or what I will be doing then. I am pretty busy and I plan to direct a feature film late next year so I may be busy with that to come back and direct. A part of me thinks it is time to walk away. Three shorts in this anthology series has been rewarding, but maybe enough for me. I would only come back for the people.
But I also think it might be time to let some other filmmakers be involved. It was special to be the only returning director on part 2, but maybe it is a good idea to freshen it up and get some new blood in there. I might write a segment if P.J. and Eric ask me back. In the end, this is their call. They may not want me back. Who knows? Never say never though. Both films have been very good to me and I loved working with everyone. It seemed everyone did. It was very much a family.
HorrorGeekLife: Thank you for the insight into your segments, it was a lot of fun getting to know the film from a different perspective. And thank you again for your time, I look forward to seeing more from you!