Interview: JACK FROST Director Michael Cooney

Interview: JACK FROST Director Michael Cooney

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Photo: Michael Cooney

When A-Pix was firing on all cylinders in the late 1990s releasing a steady stream of genre titles, I fell in love with them. UNCLE SAM, ICE CREAM MAN, THE SURGEON, and others were refreshing in a pretty blase pool of horror entertainment. They seemed willing to venture in to the fringes and give guys like Bill Lustig wide video distribution in Blockbuster and beyond. I adored their catalog so much I ran the “official fan site” that lasted about a year before the company fell apart. One film they picked up, the killer snowman picture JACK FROST, really stuck a chord with me. Hilarious, gory, and silly, the movie is a riot. Fast forward a decade and I tracked down writer/director Michael Cooney for a conversation about the film for a piece (that never ran) in Fangoria magazine. Presented below is our conversation in full, covering the original film, it’s sequel, and the second sequel that has yet to be realized. The first movie just got a stunning, loving re-release from Vinegar Syndrome, complete with lenticular cover, on Blu-ray. No better time to pull this interview from the archives. I hope you enjoy.

BEAHM: So you are from England with a background in theatre. Tell me about your creative life before Jack Frost…
COONEY: My family has been in the theatre business since I was a little boy. My dad is a writer, actor, producer and director, so I grew up in theatre.

BEAHM: What were you doing creatively before Jack Frost?
COONEY: I can’t spell, so thank goodness for spell check. I was always good at math, and at the school I was at if you were good at one thing you excelled at it and nothing else mattered, so I went through my schooling being told I couldn’t write, meaning I couldn’t spell.

Just before I went to college I had the summer off and I was at home and had this idea I wanted to write. It turned into this ridiculously long fantasy adventure novel. Something like 700 pages long. I had opened something up and it just came pouring out and I couldn’t stop it, and I thought oh, this is fun.

I messed around doing various things, but I was still governed by the fact that I was good at math, so I was going to go to university to become a teacher. I can’t remember quite how it happened, but I thought for a moment that I wanted to become an actor. My parents both thought, ‘Oh thank goodness he doesn’t want to become an actor!’ They supported me in that, and I came out to Los Angeles to go to acting school and it turns out I am a terrible actor. I found this out in the first week of acting school at Lee Strasburg (SP!). The put you on film and when they played it back I was just awful. By this time I had left England telling everyone I was going to be the next Tom Cruise or whatever, so I’m out on a two year visa thinking what am I going to do? I suck.

The first thing I did was blame the monologues. The acting didn’t improve, but I remembered that I loved doing the writing, so I started writing more and more. I had a couple of producer friends who said I should write a screenplay, but I said I had never done that. So I read a bunch of screenplays and said, ‘I think I can do that,’ so I started. I wrote and wrote. The first ones were terrible and they got a little better bit by bit. I must have written fifteen or twenty screenplays before they were presentable.

My friends, the producers, were making music videos and commercials so I was working with them doing whatever I could. By this time I had fallen in love with movies and making movies.

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Photo: Michael Cooney

BEAHM: You made your film debut with Jack Frost. How did the project come about?
COONEY: This was right at the time that Terminator 2 had come out with all of its digital effects. I thought about what about a killer that was made of all the elements of water. There would be snow and ice and steam, and it could do all these amazing things. When I first wrote it we were thinking it would be quite a big budget movie with all these digital effects, but it didn’t sell as that.

Someone called us up about a year after we’d put it to bed asking if we could do the picture for under a million dollars, and we said, ‘Well of course you can!’ lying through our teeth. My producer friend said I should direct it so they wouldn’t have to pay any more for it, which was fine because I got to get behind a camera.

We then had this script that was full of these digital effects and things you couldn’t do on this budget. The first thing was we had to streamline the script for this extremely low budget. The next thing that happened was that we actually saw the snowman. Way at the beginning of pre-production it was still in our heads that we could make quite a nasty horror movie, and there would be a bunch of good kills. And then we saw it.

There is a long story about how we spent all our money at this one company that was supposed to make all these Jack Frosts but they just made the one snowman. Three balls of snow. We had no money to make anymore, and we looked at this thing and thought, ‘That’s just not scary.’ This was before we had actors, quite early on. We realized we were going to have to embrace it.

We put something like $50,000 of our seed money in this company and literally had like three balls of foam. We gad to do some rethinking.

I hope I embraced it well. People who get the movie understand what we were making.

One of the things we did was we thought about the casting. We cast our lead Chris Allport, this very good, straight actor, and then we populated the world with goofballs. You can tell that this isn’t a serious piece and that everybody embraced it. It’s not that it’s tongue in cheek, because I don’t think it is in any way mean spirited to the genre, it is not a spoof of the genre. The hope is that there is just a charm to it.

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Photo: Michael Cooney

BEAHM: So initially you planned for a more vicious film and the suit changed your approach?
COONEY: Yes, the humor came on re-write once we saw the snowman. Originally it was a pretty straight approach. There was much more to it in the original script. It started off in a small town and then moved to Denver in a skyscraper.

BEAHM: Despite the absurd subject matter, you managed to attract an excellent cast. How did you sell folks like Chris Allport and Scott MacDonald on the concept? How did people respond to the material?
COONEY: They understood what we were doing. The production was a disaster, but the actors were all fantastic and understood. They looked at this 26-year-old goofball director who believed in all his heart that this was the way to do it and they trusted me. That’s all you can ask of an actor. Even when they walked in and saw the snowman, they trusted that I would be able to find this balance of humor and horror.

BEAHM:  What do you remember about brining Shannon Elizabeth on board for her screen debut? What was your initial impression of her?
COONEY: She was an absolute sweetheart. She was terrific to work with and everybody loved her on the set. Darren Campbell (SP!) who played Tommy. What I was able to do was mix and match in the audition process and when those two read together it was just a lovely little bit.

The fraught with disaster part:
The company that funded the movie went bankrupt during pre-production. What we then realized then was that we had complete autonomy with whatever we wanted to do. It was the bank that was making the movie, and all the bank wanted was 90 minutes of film in a DVD package. We didn’t have to run anything through anybody, which was quite a luxury to have.

BEAHM:  Clearly this wasn’t made during winter. When and where was the film shot?
COONEY: It was shot during winter. This is part of the disaster. The exteriors were shot in Big Bear in January. Big Bear is about two hours outside of Los Angeles in the San Bernadino mountains, and there has been snow in Big Bear in January for sixty years at the time. Well, we had 85 degree Santa Anna winds. Everyday they said the snow was coming, but it never came. All these grand vistas we were supposed to have used kept getting narrower and narrower.

One of the shots that was shot at the very end comes at the beginning of the movie when human Jack Frost escapes from the back of the truck and there is the accident where he is melted into the snow. This was shot at night at this beautiful location and we used all the rest of our money to use foam for snow, and I thought it was okay because we can establish this big shot with the foam and that will set up everybody for the rest of the film.

BEAHM: Was it shot in 1996?
COONEY: I think it was earlier. It came out in 1996 but we shot it earlier. It was like 1993-1994 when we shot it. This went through a number of hands. There was a bankruptcy sale, then it was sold to someone else, and finally I think Apix picked it up.

BEAHM: Despite the light hearted music and cuts, the bathtub scene with Shannon is pretty dark in concept and approach. Was there any hesitation from anyone involved on this scene?
COONEY: It’s funny you said ‘in concept’ because its written into the script that he freezes around her and then smacks her head against the wall until she’s dead. That is how he kills her. We come to film it and on the first take the carrot smacks Shannon in the eye very nasty. So we take the carrot out and film it and film it. In the editing room people start asking, ‘You know what that looks like, don’t you?’ and I am like, ‘Oh no…now that you mention it…’ It was one of those things we had to embrace. That was how it looked, and it was going to be difficult to sell it any other way so in the voice over there is the line about, ‘Was it good for you?’.

For my sensibilities I like to defend that it is not a snowman rape scene. I’ve not a leg to stand on, I realize that, but I like to insist on that. There’s no nudity, no boobs or some of the other things you normally see in this type of movie, but that was one of those moments that was engineered backwards.

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Photo: Michael Cooney

BEAHM:  The film isn’t particularly bloody, and while a lot of people wish otherwise, the more traditionally gratuitous norms found in horror films are absent as well. Shannon Elizabeth clearly doesn’t have an issue with nudity, yet even the bathtub scene is shot very carefully to not reveal too much. Was the lack of gore and nudity an artistic or financial decision?
COONEY: I always thought we might be able to get away with a PG-13, but that was a very naive 26-year-old. I think by the time we saw the snowman and cast around that and decided on giving this slight dark charm, I didn’t want to dwell too much on that stuff.

I mentioned Brett Boyson. He is in the movie about six times. There is a character in the movie called Idiot. I think he appears about six times in the movie in a bright orange parka and no matter what is happening in the scene, he is doing the wrong thing. We couldn’t afford extras so I thought we could just use one extra over and over again.

BEAHM:  Tell me about the different versions of Jack Frost you had to use…Any challenges dealing with the suits? Was there really only one basic Jack Frost?
COONEY: Yes, there was one Jack Frost. There was one head we had with a big, open Kermit kind of mouth that we put fangs in. There was one body and two or three heads.

In the very last shot where we blow up the police station there is a closeup of the snowman bursting into flames and we were down to one grubby snowman and we had to make sure we would never need him again, and we doused him in gasoline and threw a match on him and ignited it.

The struggle was that it didn’t move. I there were two bodies, one with the arms by his side and one where the arms could move. Then there were a couple of spare arms for close ups. We realized there was an actor inside and his movements were very limited. The only time we actually see him moving is the ‘Look ma, I’m a Picasso’ scene where he explodes and puts and puts himself back together strangely. That was shot in time lapse because the actor was in there just shuffling along.

The other thing was that he was enormous in the frame. The very first thing we ever shot was the Tommy character being killed in the kitchen, where he is stabbed with the icicles. That was the first time we shot the snowman with an actor, and it was impossible to frame. I think it works in the end, but we were forced to shoot with longer lenses, compressing things, and there is never a big shot of the snowman doing his deeds.

BEAHM:  One of my favorite scenes is about a quarter of the way in where the sheriff is called to investigate the frozen body. The way you shot that from behind and up worked so well. The prop was great too.
COONEY: That was Mike Deke (SP!), who has done a lot of special effects, and I think he just pulled it out of the back of his truck. That shot is all part of embracing this production that was so cheap and so fast. I didn’t have time for coverage. So one of the things I said was every time we are covering a dead body it was to be done in one shot.

That scene you’re talking about, one of the interesting pieces of instruction I gave to the actor was to always look at the wrong actor. In that scene, whenever someone’s talking, Chris Allport is looking at the wrong actor.

BEAHM:  Where did you get this sense of humor?
COONEY: My dad. He has been writing British farces since before I was born. I grew up around a lot of very funny English people, and I had a big brother who like to tease me by making me watch horror movies. Between the two of them I developed this darker sense of humor.

BEAHM: What were some of the horror films that made an impact on you?
COONEY: The one was Friday the 13th. I can remember my brother making me watch that movie. I remember watching Kevin Bacon get the spear through his throat and thinking it was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. Afterward I put four inches of timber under my bed because that scene so affected me. There is that part of me that was absolutely terrified, but I was looking at it thinking about the fake body and the mechanics of it.

Then you had Sam Raimi’s wonderful Evil Dead movies. He’s a genius. That’s what I aspired to, the way he uses the camera to pull you in.

BEAHM: How was the deal with Apix arrived at? What was it like working with them?
COONEY I don’t know. I think that was the fire sale after the bank took it over.

BEAHM:  If I remember correctly the film got a pretty big video release. What kind of treatment did Apix give the film? (linticular covers were great!)
COONEY: It got a great release because it had that fantastic lenticular video box. I credit so much of people getting to see this little movie to the box. This was at the height of direct to video movies and it was the perfect time. It had the snowman that followed you around when you walked around. Just fantastic.

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Photo: Michael Cooney

BEAHM: Were there any theatrical showings?
COONEY: No. I have in my garage what I believe is the only existing celluloid film of Jack Frost. I don’t know how well I’ve kept it, but I have it.

BEAHM: The movie has been treated pretty harshly by critics and fans. How was it received upon initial release?
COONEY: This was before the internet and film blogs and such, so I wasn’t really keeping up on how well it was doing or anything. I remember about two years after it came out I was on a rafting trip and there were these very cool young college dudes, and the topic came up and they asked what I did and I told them I made Jack Frost and they went, ‘Oh my God!’ That was my first indication that it had become this stoner cult must see crazy movie for college kids. I remember being up in these mountains in North Carolina thinking it was the coolest thing ever. It had found it’s audience. That’s all you hope when you make these things, is that the right people find it.

BEAHM: And then three years later came Jack Frost 2, a film that trumps the original in goofiness. How did that come about, and what was the shoot like?
COONEY: It’s almost too aware. It went out to make itself, which is almost impossible to do. It was a different experience. By that time we had money people leaning on us and there wasn’t the freedom we had on the first one. It was still a nice experience, but not like on the first one.

BEAHM: And a lot of it was CGI.
COONEY: Yes, and I think it is terrible. My favorite sequences are of the baby snowballs going crazy, and that part of the movie really got back to what we were doing on the original Jack Frost. The new Jack Frost was almost too improved. Now we had a snowman you could see walk and talk and I think it gives the game away. In the first one we couldn’t do that so there were lots of close ups and over the shoulder and such, and I think that’s part of what gave that film its personality.

We struggled with the digital. It looks like its shot on some Handicam. It came from up above to shoot it on video, it’s what everybody was doing, and yeah, everybody’s doing it but they all had tens of millions of dollars to make it look good. We struggled with it. What it does is at times, it looks like behind the scenes footage. When you come to the baby snowballs, where you have to come in close and the background is out of focus, you have much more of the feel of the original movie.

BEAHM: What was the reception for the sequel?
COONEY: I don’t think it is not as loved as the first one. People who liked the first one get the second, but I don’t think the charm is there. On the first one, for the low budget silly movie it is, I think you can tell it was made with love and care and a great deal of fun.

BEAHM: What happened to Apix?
COONEY: I couldn’t tell you. I’m not into the business side of things. There are all these different companies that have distributed it.

BEAHM: Is there a script for Jack Frost 3? Would you be interested in revisiting the story?
COONEY: I started writing it. There is about 20 pages somewhere. It was going to be a giant Jack Frost. At the end of part 2 there is this screaming ‘Jackzilla! Jackzilla!’ and this giant carrot drops on the boat. The second one started off ten years later and the kid is all grown up. It was going to be set in the city, and Jackzilla, this giant snowman, attacks a skyscraper, enveloping it and killing people by coming in through the vents and all of that. Digital effects have come down in price by now and I think we could do it. If someone wants to make it I would adore the opportunity. It holds such a special place in my heart.
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JACK FROST is currently available from Vinegar Syndrome.

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Photo: Vinegar Syndrome