Interview: Director Justin Dyck and Writer Keith Cooper Talk ‘Anything for Jackson’October 26, 2020
Recently we had the chance to talk with Justin Dyck and Keith Cooper about all things directing and writing, including their film Anything for Jackson, playing at the virtual Blood in the Snow Film Festival on October 28th.
How did both of you get started in this business? Was it something you always wanted to do or one of those happy accidents?
Justin: For me, it was something I always wanted to do. I picked up my parent’s video camera when I was thirteen years old, started goofing around with my friends, and for me, I always loved the process but, I lived north of Toronto, I didn’t know how movies were made or if it was even possible, so I didn’t’ think it was a real job, I just really enjoyed it. From there the ball kept rolling, the more I kept playing around with the equipment the more I fell in love with the creative end of it, just started telling stories and now I can’t stop, and here I am.
Keith: For myself, I would say it was a little bit of both. It was something I always wanted to do but like Justin said, in Canada, we just don’t have those opportunities. I ended up writing a few things here and there, nothing really taking off, so I got some equipment, got some friends that were funny and we started making fun stuff. Out of the blue, I got an email from Will Ferrell’s website Funny or Die, him and Adam McKay, and it sounds stupid but it’s literally one of those things where I got a job offer that day, so I did that for a while. Then Justin and I crossed paths about five or six years later and of course, my background in comedy and Justin running around with the video camera means that we should make Christmas and family movies together. It was crazy, we just kept going, and horror was more where Justin and I had a shared interest, and it just sort of ended up that this was the first one in that genre. It was a long time coming, that’s for sure.
So what are the good and bad parts about both directing and writing?
Justin: The best parts are just the whole thing. It’s just tons of fun to tell a story and collaborate. I have an artistic mind and always wanted to be an artist but I can’t draw, I can’t play an instrument, but when I was able to team up with all these incredible people, actors, technicians, everything, I could start to see my ideas come to life and the ability to do that with people smarter and more talented than myself. The worst part of it is it’s a tough business, it really is. As Keith said, we’ve been grinding at this for a long time, the sort of fake it to you make it mentality, I always told people I was a director even though I hadn’t directed anything, until one day I got handed a script about a kid and a monkey so I made a kid’s movie. After that, I finally found financing for a shoestring budget horror movie, which is what I’ve been trying to do this whole time. It’s tough, and there is a famous quote, if you can go do something else, do it, but I just can’t so here I am.
Keith: Yeah, I would say similar in the sense of the frustration where you write things that you’re really passionate about and I think, this is a good movie, and they say yeah, this is a good movie…do you have anything with a monkey and I’m like yeah, I guess we have something with a monkey. For me the best part is the table read, it always has been, it surprises me that it’s still my favorite. You sit there and you write everything and you come up with these characters in your head and lucky enough for this movie, we were able to envision the actors that we wanted and were lucky enough to get them. We got to sit down and do the read, it was only about two weeks before camera, and it was just incredible to sit there with Sheila, Julian, Josh, and Konstantina and read through the script for the first time, that is always my favorite experience.
So let’s talk about Anything for Jackson. When you were putting this together, you actually had specific actors in minds for certain roles?
Keith: It was kind of something we’d gone through, different ideas, and Justin and I kind of came up with this on the way home from another pitch, funny enough. They just wanted something more supernatural so as you do in any pitch meeting, I’ve gotten pretty used to these, I’ve gotten pretty good so that I can sell a movie that doesn’t exist, so that’s kind of what we did. Justin and I kept throwing around ideas and we came up with the reverse exorcism and initially, it was a younger couple, that was where we started, and then Justin had seen Shelia McCarthy in Cardinals?
Justin: Yeah, it was an indie film called Cardinals and it was with another actor I was working with at the time, he said you have to watch Cardinals and working in Canadian film I’m very aware of Shelia and the talent that she is, but I saw this movie and said oh my god, that’s Audrey. She is such a phenomenal talent, I showed it to Keith and we decided that’s who we wanted, and you went and started the script at that point, correct?
Keith: Yeah, that’s how it started and then we knew if we could make this movie, based on experience, that we would have to reach out to people we at least had access to. I had mentioned Julian, he’s a nice guy, just added me on Facebook, it was so cool, I could reach out to Julian, so I pictured Julian and Shelia when I was writing it obviously, at least to give us a benchmark of what we thought would be the ideal cast.
Justin. I had a friend who had just produced a film with Shelia in it and I asked if he would be able to get me in touch and she was so sweet. She responded to my email right away and we sent her the script and I think she read it in three days, she really liked it and I warned her, I said look, this is going to be an indie film, I’ve been on indie film sets and I can promise you no 24 hour days, we will have hot food available for you and we won’t leave you hanging out in the snow waiting in between for setups. She said hey, I do those bigger projects so I can come out and play on smaller independent films like this, and the content really connected with her so she was on board. It was about a year later that we found the good people at Vortex and A71 to actually put a little bit of money into this thing.
There’s a great sense of dread that hangs over the film from beginning to end. As the writer and director, is it hard to take that sense of dread off the page and put it up on the screen?
Justin: Yeah, for sure. It’s one thing to read a story, it can be as simple as the line, something happens and it’s terrifying, and you actually have to take that and make it terrifying at that point. I heard an interview with Jason Blum recently where he was talking about if there’s a scare, I think he was talking about the closing of movie theaters, he said if you look down at your phone one minute before the scare happens you could lose it completely because you’re pulled out of that moment and it’s this mixture of the visuals and the sound obviously, how it’s cut, how the tension is built, so if you pull yourself out for just one second the whole thing falls apart, so it’s definitely a teetering tower you have to try and achieve. Fingers crossed we achieved it, it still scares me and I’ve seen it 150 times.
Keith: Without giving away too many spoilers our incredible actor Troy James finally got to see it and he said wow, I was so scared, I actually scared myself! He didn’t know his part was coming up and when his part came up he got scared. He’s just this beautiful, sweet man and I don’t know if horror is his thing, he’s terrifying in it, Justin managed to scare him with his set up so that was a success.
What were the challenges for both of you in terms of making Anything for Jackson?
Justin: Getting it off the ground was a huge challenge but we were certainly ready to hit the ground running as it were because we had been preparing this for so long. We have multiple films in the genre world that Keith has already turned into scripts, we’ve broken them down, prepped to shoot them and this is the first one to go so yeah, that was difficult. In terms of making it, there are struggles literally every day, and Keith, what were the struggles you had?
Keith: Writing it was more about, every time you started thinking about something that was a bit more expensive I was like hold on, I know we don’t have the money for that, then having to write to what we do have. I talking to you from my house and that’s where we filmed the movie, also Justin’s house was used for a couple of the scenes, honestly, it really comes down to not knowing. For me, on the producing side, we really couldn’t have had a better team, like our art department was amazing, but just saying to an art department, go build this littler kids room, Justin gives them the specs he’s thinking about, the layout, it’s very detailed but you never know until you get there. That to me is the most terrifying thing because we don’t have the luxury of the big Hollywood shoots, we had what, fourteen days to shoot this?
Justin: We had fifteen days, no chance of a reshoot, so that was definitely a massive challenge, the time we had to do it. Fighting the weather…it looks like a really snowy movie, we had written in snowblower scenes and I’d say seven of the fifteen days you could see grass, we just had this weird thaw so it was melting, the other half of the time we had blizzards and people outside trying to push equipment through snowbanks.
Keith: Our poor makeup artist, she’s very busy with probably the most complex piece but we need this shot, Justin has organized everything very well, and there’s a window of four minutes where we have to do this blood scene so we both jumped in, we needed the extra hands. I would say it was all incredibly hard and insanely easy at the same time, in my opinion. It’s such a strange thing, you’re so happy to be there, I think it’s the adrenalin kicking in and when you look back it’s like man, we did a lot, we got a lot done.
The movie looks dark, as in the mood. The house is dark, the doctor’s office, it’s winter so outside is grey and dreary. How conscious were you guys about making that a constant from start to finish?
Justin: Oh very, for sure. It’s a theme we wanted to carry through, Sasha Moric our incredible DOP, and us sat down together, we had a whole look book put together, we had other sources of paintings and photography that gave us a look and color pallet inspiration. Our art team followed along as well, Henry and Audrey’s bedroom is actually my bedroom, they came in and painted it all those colors and my wife refused to sleep in there until they painted it back, so yeah, it was all very much by design.
Keith: Yeah, even down to the wardrobe, these are things that might not be as noticeable but the costumes, Tina Razian had a great idea, and if you watch closely you’ll even see the tone of the clothing changing throughout the film, so it was very much a conscious effort to go for that look.
Horror fans are wonderful, so loyal, but the genre is filled with so much content these days. How hard has it been to market the film, also now having COVID change everything in terms of festivals, theater showings, etc?
Justin: Great question. This is my first time in the festival circuit as a director, we’re getting a lot of great reviews back which we are happy to see, I’m not great at social media but I’ve dusted it off to try and market this thing. I’ve seen a lot of great feedback overall so I think it’s going ok, we’re really excited to get out at Blood in the Snow, after that it will be on SuperChannel for broadcast, so at least more Canadians will be able to see it.
Keith: It’s tough, the best way to look at is you don’t get the experience and energy of being there and hearing everybody, I really would have liked to hear an audience’s reaction to the movie in a theater, it would be great to know if things worked or didn’t. We’ve had a few COVID safe viewings for our cast and crew, watching poor Josh’s reaction was worth it for that, but the upside is some people who say wouldn’t have gone to Fantasia in Montreal watched it online.
So what other projects are you guys working on?
Keith: As you said with COVID, everything has changed. Justin and I have another one that Justin is producing, I’m directing and writing a revenge movie called Mourning War with Diego Tinoco with Lionsgate so that’s coming up, and other than that Justin and I have so many coals in the fire. We’ve been talking to a lot of people but COVID had really changed our direction.
Justin: We have a few concepts and are just looking for the right home, so we’re hoping as Anything for Jackson gets out there and people see that we are capable of making more than just Christmas movies then we’ll find a nice home and get a production partner. We have lots of ideas, tons of development but nothing in pre-production yet.
I want to thank Justin and Keith for taking the time to talk with me.
Anything for Jackson can be seen on Super Channel as part of the Blood in the Snow Film Festival on Wednesday, October 28th at 9:00 PM (repeats at midnight)
Click here for the festival’s complete schedule: https://www.bloodinthesnow.ca/