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Going Outside the Realm of the Classic Zombie Horror Film with 'Black Friday' Director Casey Tebo

'Black Friday' director Casey Tebo shares with Script what attracted him to the screenplay written by Andy Greskoviak, character development, and advice for first-time filmmakers.

On Thanksgiving night, a group of disgruntled toy store employees begrudgingly arrive for work to open the store at midnight for the busiest shopping day of the year. Meanwhile, an alien parasite crashes to Earth in a meteor. This group of misfits led by store manager Jonathan (Bruce Campbell) and longtime employee Ken (Devon Sawa) soon find themselves battling against hordes of holiday shoppers who have been turned into monstrous creatures hellbent on a murderous rampage on Black Friday.

Black Friday is exactly the kind of horror-comedy movie you'd want to cozy up with post-Thanksgiving with the family* - or certainly any other time of the year. This film has the right amount of laughs, the gore, and a motley crew of fun characters. I had a great time speaking with the director of the film, Casey Tebo, about what attracted him to the screenplay written by Andy Greskoviak, character development, and advice for first-time filmmakers. 

*Family viewing - use your best judgment, parents.

Black Friday, Screen Media Films.

Black Friday, Screen Media Films.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did the script by Andy come across your desk and what attracted you to this piece as a director?

Casey Tebo: in 2016, I did Happy Birthday and then 2018, I did this Steven Tyler documentary. And then I was looking to do my next narrative feature, and I wrote a pretty dark cop movie that I had a couple of offers from streamers on and I was just kind of waiting to see what happened there. And I try to read at least a couple of scripts a week, whether it's from the Black List or the BloodList, or things people send me. Andy sent me his pitch and immediately my radar went off just thinking, ‘Well, this sounds like a movie that I would have loved when I was like 10 to 14.’ And my sons are 11 and 13, and I was like, ‘Man, I think they would get together with all their friends and watch this, like at a sleepover.’ It just had that Carpenter meets Columbus kind of vibe that I really dig. And also, originality is a big thing with me. A lot of times when we go see studio tentpoles, sometimes the trailers that play, whether it's a remake, or a sequel, 20 years later, I can see my sons sort of rolling their eyes a lot, because they're just not fooled. One of the reasons Squid Game was so popular was not only because it was amazing, but it was something new. When I was a kid and when you were a kid, there were things that we loved. There were things that I discovered when I was a kid like, Aliens, or He-Man, or G.I. Joe and things like that. I didn't want to watch Bonanza, because that's what my dad watched, you know? And people are like, ‘Well, these kids don't like movies, they like YouTube.’ It's like, well, if you made movies for them, instead of people in their 30s and 40s, maybe they would like movies. So, that's what stood out to me was this was something original for audiences everywhere.

Sadie: I think you guys nailed it. You have the toughest critics in your house, were they receptive to your movie?

Casey: Yeah, my daughter is actually in the movie. She's one of the girls in the beginning. And she's only eight. So, she hasn't seen it yet. It's a little much for her. But my niece is in it, and she watched it with some friends, and she just kept blowing up my phone.

Bruce had a really nice thing to say yesterday when he and I were doing some press, and they were like, ‘You got a great fun, gory kind of funny movie.’ And Bruce was like, ‘Well, I always kind of looked at it as like a character film.’ And when my sons were watching it and when Anita was like heckling Chris about his work attire, they were like, ‘She's such a bitch.’ And when Michael Jai White was like getting attacked, you're like, ‘No, we love him!’ That that was my goal as a filmmaker was to make these people real and likable enough that the audience would want to take that journey with them. And I think we accomplished that.

[Developing Characters and Tone with 'Ida Red' Writer-Director John Swab]

Sadie: There is actual character development, and the planting the seed of second chances for all of them. And we’re torn about Brian dying or not dying and then of course Jonathan taking one for the team in the most Bruce way.

Casey: That actually changed quite a bit, because when Andy first sent me the script, it was much darker. It started out in the toy store and then people were getting killed. And I was like, ‘Andy, let's learn who these people are.’ Jonathan's arc for Bruce was much more sort of a loser's death. And I said to Andy, ‘Let's have this guy decide that he wants to be good.’ And Andy was awesome as far as a writer goes, he wasn't like, ‘No, I'm not gonna change that.’ He was like, Yeah, man, whatever makes the movie better.’ He was great to work with as far as being collaborative.

Bruce Campbell as Jonathan in Black Friday, Screen Media Films.

Bruce Campbell as Jonathan in Black Friday, Screen Media Films.

Sadie: How do you combine horror and comedy, and which comes first? Especially with a character piece are you putting the character motivations first, and then horror falls into place and then comedy? Or do you let it ride out on set?

Casey: I'll be completely honest with you. When I first read the script, I never thought that I wanted to make it a comedy because I fear that comedy is in a very strange place. I think like the last true comedy, as far as American cinema goes to come out was probably Superbad. I mean, I could be wrong. There could have been movies to come along that have been hilarious, that I haven't seen. I just feel like in the classic sense of American comedy, whether it's like, Ghostbusters, Animal House --

Sadie: The National Lampoon flare.

Casey: Yeah. Sometimes I have to shut Bridesmaids off because I'm laughing so hard, it's so funny. But that movie, like they're getting diarrhea in the bridal place and it's like, I'm not sure I've seen any comedies like that, and it takes a very skilled director like Judd Apatow or Paul Feig to make those movies. And I didn't want to get Bruce and Ryan, Ivana, Devon, and Michael Jai White onset be like, ‘Alright guys, here we go.’ Because I feel like that's a dangerous place to be. I've been lucky enough to to meet and work with Chris Columbus and I read something he said that it was like, as soon as you tell everyone there's a comedy especially on set with the actors, they're all trying out funny each other. And that's a real problem. And the thing with comedies is like, if you make a Will Ferrell comedy, he's the guy and he's the one with the jokes, you know? So, in a movie like this where you have a bunch of indie genre actors, if they're all trying to out funny each other that can go the wrong direction very quickly.

I sent them a list of movies that I love more about the relationships between people. Like Alien is my favorite movie of all time, and so much that I named my daughter Ripley. You're in a toy store and you're working with these people and you have to kind of get along with them, even though you may not like him. If you watch Alien, the genius of Ridley Scott is in the beginning of that movie. None of those people really like each other, especially Ripley and Parker. And by the end of the movie, they're like standing next to each other and he physically blocks out those scenes with them, making sure that they're always sort of face to face, opposing each other. But near the end of the movie, before Parker and Lambert die, he and Ripley are close together. You have to bring them together through the tragedy of it. So, I sent them a list of movies like Alien, I think I sent them Krampus, The Boys on Amazon because I think The Boys on Amazon does an incredible job of being funny, but not trying too hard to be funny. If we went way over the top, this thing would have ended up like Sharknado, and that's not what I wanted. I wanted something that was kind of endearing. And you really love these people and you want to root for them.

Sadie: I think I have an inkling of what movies inspired you to become a filmmaker, but what made you want to take that jump?

Casey Tebo

Casey Tebo

Casey: It's kind of a generic American story in the sense of I think when I was in the third grade, I had seen Temple of Doom. And just the idea of like, ‘Wait a minute, somebody actually had to make this, somebody had to put this together?’ And I grew up in rural Massachusetts, and there were like, no movie theaters, no comic book stores anywhere around me. We had this weird box top that Joe Lynch and I talked about, I think he had the same thing growing up in Long Island, it was called Preview. And I would get all these cheesy B movies like The Kentucky Fried Movie, that that was my exposure. And then once I was 17-18 and went to college, that's what I wanted to do. But then I got to college and I was like, ‘I guess I need to get a job.’ So, I was a graphic designer from like, 20 to 30. And it wasn't until I was 30, I was like, ‘Dude, I'm miserable. I'm gonna do this, I need to follow my dream now.’ So, I started working. I got lucky and worked with the guys in Aerosmith for a long time and just sort of leapfrogged that into other things to try to get where I am. I definitely am not going to front and say that, ‘Oh, I studied French New Wave cinema,’ or I’I really am into the classics.’ I remember reading a Seth Rogen quote, where he was like, I don't think he said, ‘Fuck Citizen Kane,’ but he was like, ‘I've never even seen that movie. If you want to talk to me about Caddyshack and Animal House, great, that's what I watched.’ I love all the old Hitchcock stuff. I've started re-watching some classics like The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Blvd. And some of those movies like Lawrence of Arabia, literally fucking almost knocked me over. But I was raised on like, 80s shit, you know? Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Goonies, movies like that. That's just what I knew.

[A Nod to Classic Action-Adventure Hollywood Movies and Storytelling with ‘Red Notice’ Writer-Director Rawson Marshall Thurber]

Sadie: There's definitely something about making things that you want to see, or in this case your kids would want to see too and enjoy. Knowing that you had the graphic designer background, you know, this is this does have some big visual eye candy moments with the characters, the monster at the end – what was the collaboration process like working with your VFX team?

Casey: Andy and I had worked together for like a year and it was initially just kind of these zombie creatures. And the ending, Andy had written a much bigger movie. One of the monsters was like a spider and I'm like, ‘Andy, we just can't do this. We don't have the money to do that.’ When we brought our producer on, he introduced us to Bob Kurtzman, and Kurtzman and I would have conversations and he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Man, I’ve grown weary of every fucking hoard of bad guys in a movie being gray and slimy. Bob was like, ‘Well, do you want to do classic zombies?’ And I would talk to Andy about this. I would think if somebody is going to get infected on Black Friday, you have to sort of manifest their rage and what they're actually setting out to do. And I was like, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if we could do some sort of hybrid zombie vulture, because these people on Black Friday are fucking vultures?’ And Andy he was like, ‘Oh, that's a good idea.’ I just wanted to do something that was just outside the realm of the classic movie zombie.


Sadie: General advice for first-time filmmakers who are diving into a horror film, wanting to make something a little different, what is something they should embrace or maybe avoid?

Casey: Sean McKittrick, who's a good friend of mine, he produced my first movie, and he's gone on to be a fucking huge producer, he did Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, and he said something to me that always stuck, and it's one of the reasons I gravitated to Black Friday. He was like, ‘What do you have going on next?’ And I said, ‘Here's a bunch of stuff I've written. Here are some ideas I have.’ And I sent him like six or seven different things. And he was like, ‘Well, that one's great.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Well, because I haven't seen that movie before.’ And I think that's really important. I just got sent a script by a writer named Joe Barnathan, and it's about a little girl who finds this amulet and her sort of catatonic grandma who lives with the family, and the house gets invaded by terrorists because the father is into like some shady business dealings and the amulet turns the grandmother into this ass-kicking John McClane, and it's just the funniest fucking coolest concept I've read in a long time. And even though I've seen movies like that, I haven't seen that movie. Look at someone like Shane Carruth who launched his career by doing Primer, which was a very small, very contained movie. I think, first of all, there are no excuses anymore to not make something because cameras are cheap, you literally can use the new iPhone, you can get your friends to be actors. I think it's really about finding something that's original and trying not to be too sort of heady or pretentious about the whole thing. Just go with what you know, go with what you love. And the rest hopefully will fall into place.

Black Friday is in theaters November 19th and on Demand November 23rd.

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