Interview: “Grimcutty” Writer/Director John William Ross Discusses the Making and Meaning of His New Hulu Horror Movie

Filmmaker John William Ross has been steadily making a name for himself in the independent horror scene over the last couple decades. His first feature, Freaky Faron, was released in 2006, but he began to gain more attention in recent years with his work in shorts, most notably The Thing in the Apartment and its sequel for Crypt TV.

His new movie, entitled Grimcutty, has given him his broadest audience yet, with a prominent release via the Hulu streaming service. Today I had the opportunity to chat with John about his love of horror and the work that went into bringing Grimcutty to the small screen. Full disclosure: I have been friends with John Ross for almost 25 years. We went to college together and he was in my wedding party. I opted out of reviewing the film (leaving that to my capable colleague Mike Mack at the link above) but I thought it would be fun to interview John.

Mike Celestino, Laughing Place:  As a movie fan, I’ve always felt like you were more into action movies, but as a filmmaker you tend to lean toward horror as a genre. What is it about horror that appeals to you as a writer and a director?

John William Ross:  Well, I always loved horror, but yes, it’s true. When I was in high school and growing up, I only wanted to make action movies with lots of gunfights and tons of explosions. But the action movie kind of morphed or dwindled a little bit right around when I was in college. Also, action films are really difficult to do on a small budget. I mean, it’s hard to go make an action short film if you don’t have a lot of resources for that. But I’ve always loved horror, I love thrillers, I love anything that gets your blood going– gets you pumped up. It’s amazing that something that you watch on a screen can get you really frightened or terrified, or get your heart beating. That’s kind of my goal with everything I do, is just to create some excitement in that regard.

LP:  Who would you say are some horror directors that you’ve admired or have influenced you the most?

Ross:  That’s tough. I could name a lot of horror films, [but] filmmakers, I’m not sure. I took a lot of inspiration for this movie from Wes Craven. I think Wes Craven is kind of underrated in terms of his directing style. I feel like people take it for granted, but the way he films things chasing you is really terrifying. He does this thing where he frames things up in a very clear way. Like in Scream, when the guy’s chasing her through the house, you have a clear sense of the spatial relationships– how far away the guy is from the victim. I think that’s really freaky, and I was trying to do some shots in Grimcutty that paid homage to that, where she’s running through a space and he’s running through the same space, so you can see how far away he is from her. So for this movie in particular, I did look at some of those Wes Craven movies.

LP:  Obviously I’ve seen a lot of your work through the years, but for those who don’t know, what are some of your previous projects that you’ve been the most proud of, and where can people track them down?

Ross:  After film school, I was just struggling [and] fumbling about. I made a low-budget feature, low-budget shorts, [and I was] writing scripts. I’d say things really started taking off for me around 2015 when I started doing stuff for Crypt TV. Also in that period– in the late 2010s– there was a lot of demand for online short-form horror content, and I was fortunate enough to get into that world when things were snowballing. I did a whole bunch of short-form content for Crypt TV, I did a short for Awesomeness TV, and I did a short for Bite Size Horror [called] Gregory, which led to this project. And the [Crypt TV] stuff led to the Facebook Watch series The Birch. I co-directed the first season [of that] with Amy Wang, then I directed the second season all on my own, and that was a blast. I’ve been very fortunate enough to be able to build up a body of work from all that.

The first short I did for Crypt TV was called The Thing in the Apartment, and I did a sequel to that. I’d say that’s still the thing that I’m most proud of, because it’s just terrifying. It’s terrifying in the way that I was trying to achieve from the beginning, and I knew when I finished that short film, I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’ So I hope that people go check that out. Since then, I’ve been able to try a bunch of different types of horror content, because horror has so many different forms. I think Grimcutty is a different type of horror than all the other stuff that I’ve done [previously].

LP:  What was the inspiration for Grimcutty?

Ross:  I think it’s pretty obvious [that] it’s not-so-loosely based on the ‘Momo Challenge.’ I was looking for an idea and I saw this local newscast about the Momo Challenge, and it was very typical local-news scaremongering. But I think what struck me about it was the disconnect between what parents thought it was and what kids thought it was. It almost felt like some kind of weird comedy sketch or something. The parents were so freaked out about this thing, but then they’d always go and interview kids about it, and they were like, ‘The what now?’ They didn’t even know what they were talking about. It just felt ripe for satire, and I had been wanting to do Invasion of the Body Snatchers with technology. That’s one of my favorite horror stories. I think every iteration of that story that’s been made into a movie is pretty great. I just kind of combined all those ideas and it came together.

LP:  How would you pitch Grimcutty to someone who might be on the fence about watching it?

Ross:  I would say if you want to watch a movie where you can just make some popcorn, sit down on the couch for 90 minutes, and feel like you got your fun October movie fix, then this is the movie for you. I mostly just want people, especially horror fans, to just have fun with it. That’s my pitch. I think the movie has heart, it has laughs, and it has scares, and I would hope that people get all three of those things from [it].

LP:  What was the writing process for this movie like? Did you do a lot of research on how technology affects young people?

Ross:  20th Digital was gracious enough to start developing this project with me just based on the pitch that I’d done. We were in communication a lot, texting each other or reading each other articles that we read on the internet about how technology is affecting people. I read a lot of articles [and] I listened to a lot of podcasts. I didn’t want to overload the movie too much with messaging or anything, but I definitely wanted to get a sense of what is on people’s minds right now and what people really think about these new technologies that we’re barraged with. I knew that I wanted to make it about kids, young people, teenagers [whose] world is wrapped up in this technology, and what would happen if it was suddenly taken away from them and they were disconnected from it. There’s a lot of research that suggests that depression is up among teenagers, and people are trying to get to the root cause of this– and of course ‘phones’ is the go-to baddie for that. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that, but I definitely tried to get as much of a sense of that as I could, because I was writing teenage characters, and I wanted teenage audience members to feel like they’re being listened to.

LP:  You and I were of the last generation that grew up without the internet and social media, but we had our own ‘moral panics’ in the 80s as well. What do you think it is about the ‘new’ and unfamiliar that always scares the previous generation in this way?

Ross:  It’s total projection. Older people and parents are suddenly barraged with this thing that is unusual and new, that they didn’t grow up with. It just has them all nervous and disoriented and adrift, and they just project that entirely on younger people. It’s almost textbook. In the 80s it was ‘Satanic Panic’ and heavy metal music, and in the 90s it was rap music. It just keeps morphing. Now I don’t know if the hysteria about phones and how phones are affecting young people is really a one-to-one comparison, because the technology thing is way more complex. It’s a more complex problem than we’ve ever had to deal with. It’s funny how so much of horror is ‘throwback’ to the 80s and 90s now. In a weird way, kids are nostalgic for an age when they didn’t have to deal with all this technology. I’m more interested in how they’re dealing with it now. Social media came around when we were [adults]. It was a very new thing, and we didn’t know how to handle it. But kids now have grown up with it from [birth], so in a weird way they’re better equipped to deal with it. They don’t see it as being as much of an invasive thing in their lives.

LP:  Let’s talk about the Grimcutty creature itself. For a movie about digital technology, you actually used some practical means to bring that creature to life. Tell me about how he was designed in preproduction and executed on set.

Ross:  I had this image in my head about this pale face floating in the darkness, sticking out of this black cowl. So I did a sketch of it with the help of a horror filmmaker friend of mine, and then when the project was greenlit we worked on the design some more to try and make it scarier. Then we showed the design to Andrew Clement from Creative Character Engineering, and we just built it. I knew that I wanted him to be big and tall, and I knew that we did not have much of a VFX budget at all. So it’s kind of a process of elimination based on your budget and schedule. When you’re on a low budget, you’re planning for the worst-case scenario. I think the worst-case scenario would be if you set out to make a CGI character and you run out of money, and you’re stuck with all these empty plates. So we ruled out CGI pretty quickly, just because of time on set, money, [and post-production]. Also there [were] a lot of scenes where the creature is interacting with people, choking, grabbing their clothes and stuff like that. That kind of stuff is very expensive to do with CGI.

The last thing you want is to be stuck with subpar CGI. A bad CGI effect is always worse than a bad practical effect, in my opinion, because bad CGI is just boring. A bad practical effect is at least entertaining. Luckily our effects and VFX teams did an amazing job, and I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve with what we had to work with. I think the Grimcutty creature is a lot of fun. What VFX we did do was scrubbing out a puppeteer. Basically, the Grimcutty’s torso is resting on top of a guy in a green leotard. The creature actor, Joel Hebner, you can imagine his arms sticking out of the Grimcutty’s waist, to operate the Grimcutty’s arms. Then it’s just a matter of getting a clean plate and scrubbing out the puppeteer’s arms, which is a really easy effect, and something we were able to do, and something we could afford. And then the VFX team went in and added some extra lifelike movement to some of the closeup shots of his face. The shot in the trailer of the Grimcutty’s face– I like that you can’t tell what’s CGI and what’s not, so I’m pretty happy with how that turned out.

LP:  What was the casting process like for this movie? Did you have trouble finding the right actors for these roles, and what was your working relationship like with the cast on set?

Ross:  We had an amazing casting director, Brittani [Ward], who brought us so many options for talent. With Sara Wolfkind, who plays Asha, she was just so natural and believable. I wanted the main character to feel genuine so people could connect with her, and Sara just brought that natural talent to the set every single day. It was a really challenging shoot and a challenging role, and she did an amazing job. Usman [Ally], who plays the dad, he just had this likability about him that everybody liked. Because Asha is a little nerdy, I wanted a dad who maybe seemed like he might have been like that when he was her age– not some domineering patriarch. Usman did such a good job of capturing this likable guy who’s been led astray. The crazier he gets, you always feel like this isn’t who he is, and you want Asha to save him. I think Usman captured that so well.

What I like about Shannyn [Sossamon] is when she’s on set, she’s really feeling it, and she wants to be caught up emotionally in what’s happening. I think that makes her performance really stand out. She’s a seasoned actor and a consummate professional, and it was really great to work with her. I think the audience will really feel the character’s journey along with her. And Callan [Farris]– super great to work with, and brought a lot of extra humor as well. It took a while and it was a real challenge, but I think we assembled a really good family of four, which is a really difficult thing to assemble for a movie when you’re casting. It’s a real challenge to find good actors who are believable, who also look like they could all be in the same family, but we did it and they all worked really well together.

LP:  What about your cinematographer Bridger Nielson and composer Sara Barone? What do you think they both brought to the atmosphere of Grimcutty?

Ross:  Well, I worked with Bridger on The Birch season one, so it was kind of like a warm blanket to have him around on the set, because I knew that everything would be handled. I knew he already understood [what I wanted]. I had already talked to death with him [about] all my 80s-movie inspirations, so we already had a shorthand going. I was really glad to have him on. It was the first time I had worked with Sara. She was recommended to me, and she did a demo for the first sequence of the movie. We all just loved it. It was scary but contemporary– that was really important to us. We didn’t want the music to feel like ‘throwback.’ We wanted it to feel modern and add this wonderful layer of tension. I think her score did that, and it was a really great experience to work with her.

LP:  You said you didn’t necessarily want Grimcutty to be too much of a message movie, but if there is a message that people take away from it, what would you want it to be?

Ross:  If I have one hope, it would be that I hope that it gets people thinking about their online activities and how it affects them. And if people watch it with their families, I hope they can release some tension together and feel more connected– kind of like when we see Asha with her family at the end of the film. I think if my movie gets just one family to do that, then that’s enough for me to be happy. I feel like part of [the appeal of] horror movies is just releasing tension by taking these things about our lives that are horrific and exaggerating them as far as we can go, and then laughing about it at the end and feeling connected. I hope someone gets that from the film– feeling more connected with people.

LP:  Lastly, what was it like working with Hulu as a distributor? I feel like the marketing for this has been fairly prominent.

Ross:  It’s been so amazing and so exciting. Hulu has been just awesome. They’ve been really inclusive and really open to hearing all our ideas about the marketing. You go turn on Hulu, which is one of the best streaming services, and there’s the movie. I couldn’t ask for anything more. The trailer kicked ass, and all the social media marketing has been more than I could hope for. I’m really grateful to everyone at Hulu for helping us put this movie out there. It’s been a blast.

Grimcutty is now available to stream exclusively via Hulu.