Interview - Michael Penning

The Children of Samhain Exclusive:

The Pinup Dolls on Ice Interviews - Part One with Michael Penning (Writer)

If you haven't heard me raving about Geoff Klein and Melissa Mira's sexy homage to the slasher genre, Pinup Dolls on Ice, then you've been living under a rock. I had the absolute pleasure of sitting with the co-directors when they screened the film at Shockfest FIlm Festival of Hollywood back in January, and I have been a fan ever since. After my review found it's way to Geoff and Melissa, we connected through social media and have been in touch ever since. I gave the film a stellar review that you can read here, where I describe the film as 'A cross between a traditional slasher movie and a drunken night at Jumbo's Clown Room… that works like a charm.' I was such a fan, that I wanted to know more about what went into making a movie that is as fun as it is brutal. So when we started discussing doing a few interviews, I was excited to learn that I would be getting to talk to more than just co-directors Geoff and Melissa, but most of the rest of the cast and the writer too. In the end we completed NINE interviews with the people behind making this fantastic indie-horror flick happen. And I would like to personally thank each and everyone who took the time to answer my questions, I appreciate it. But enough introduction, let's get into it. The Children of Samhain presents the Pinup Dolls On Ice Interviews: Part One with writer, Michael Penning. Cheers. 

Leo Francis: Geoff Klein was the cinematographer and editor on your directorial debut The Legend of Sorrow Creek, and you were the script editor for his film Bikini Girls on Ice. How did you come to write the sequel? Geoff co-wrote the original, did you work with him at all on the script? 

Michael Penning: Geoff and I have been working together on various projects for over ten years now and we’ve gotten to the point where I think we really trust each other’s talents. We’re good friends and we’ve always shared a passion for horror films, so it was just natural that we would work together. When he originally pitched the idea of a maniac mechanic who kills hot chicks in bikinis and literally puts them on ice, I remember thinking, “This is so nuts, it just might be awesome.” At the time, Geoff wanted to try his hand at writing the script but he asked me to help out as a story consultant to bounce around ideas with. When the time eventually came to write the sequel, Geoff had brought Melissa Mira on board and they decided to hire a writer so they could concentrate on producing and directing. They went though a couple drafts and were having a hard time getting a script they liked. I was in between projects at the time so I offered to write a draft and if they liked it, we could go from there. I put together the idea of a troupe of badass burlesque performers who get hunted down by our killer at a secluded trailer park. Geoff and Melissa dug it and after a few more drafts, the cameras started to roll. 

LF: The script has a self-awareness and sense of humor to it, which is what made the film so much fun. Have you been able to watch the film with many different audiences? Have the crowd reactions been more or less what you expected, or have you been surprised by any of the responses that you've gotten?

MP: Yeah, I think that no matter how gritty and visceral it sometimes gets, a movie like this is supposed to be fun at heart. I was lucky enough to be at the Fantasia screening in Montreal and the NYC Horror Film Fest. Both were a blast. There are some pretty fun moments in the film as well as some really ugly ones, and it’s great to see everyone either laughing or cringing in all the “right” places. Sometimes things will sound good on paper but you never really know how they’re going to come across on screen, so it’s always rewarding when you get the reaction you were looking for. One reaction that I’ve found especially amusing is that the film has sometimes been labeled as misogynist. I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised, given that we do some pretty brutal things to the girls in the film. But I also think it’s ironic that some people have labeled it as women-hating while completely overlooking the fact that it was co-produced and directed by a woman. I think because of all the boobs and blood, there’s an assumption that Pinup Dolls is a very male-centered film, but the truth is that it was Melissa who was really pushing for more and more violence. I’m actually a very happily married man who’s got nothing but love for his pretty wife.

LF: I notice that several of you attended McGill University. Did you know some of the other people that worked on the film from your time there?

MP: Unfortunately, no. I was probably wrapping up my degree in English Literature while most of our cast was still in high school!

LF: This feels like an homage to the slasher genre, particularly the early 80's films like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. Were films like these influential on you? Have you always been a fan of the genre? What was the first horror film you ever saw that left an impression on you? What draws you to the genre?

MP: I think both “On Ice” films are love letters to the glory days of old-school slashers. Those films were huge influences on me when I was growing up and really sparked my love for all things horror. Some kids have baseball heroes; I had Jason and Michael Myers. I remember renting Friday the 13th on VHS with some elementary school friends and we were so psyched because our parents didn’t know about it and we felt like we were getting away with something forbidden or dangerous. You would have thought we were experimenting with drugs or something (we waited until high school for that). From that moment on, I was hooked on horror. That feeling was totally addictive. For me, horror movies should always feel dangerous. There should always be this element of threat that the filmmaker might show you something you don’t want to see. It’s very much like riding a roller coaster: you’re pretty sure you’re gonna’ survive and get off safely, but there’s always this risk that it might completely go off the rails. It’s that threat of something going terribly wrong that makes it so thrilling. I tried to bring that same idea to Pinup Dolls. By playing with some of the familiar conventions of the slasher genre, we set up this environment that feels safe and somewhat predictable. Then the shit hits the fan and you start to feel uncomfortable ‘cause you don’t really know where we’re going to take you and suddenly things don’t seem so fun anymore.

LF: What other genre writers' work do you admire? Do you find that you feel yourself trying to emulate other writers or do you think you already have your own clear voice?

MP: I’m constantly reading in order to improve my writing. I’d be lying not to mention Stephen King as an influence in terms of character and dialogue, but I’m also a big fan of Robert McCammon and Dan Simmons. I just finished Carrion Comfort and it completely blew my mind. As far as screenwriters go, I’ve been a fan of what James Wan has been doing ever since the original Saw. I’ve also got a soft spot for Kevin Williamson’s 90’s slasher revivals like the first Scream. I think some of the best writing happening now is on TV. I was a huge fan of The X-Files and I think that quality of genre writing has really been carried over into shows like American Horror Story, Supernatural, and The Walking Dead. In terms of the style and tone of my work, both are usually dictated by the demands of the project itself. A film like Pinup Dolls requires a specific kind of voice, but it wouldn’t necessarily translate well to another project. I’ve got so many interests that I try to work into my stories and I’ve really been working at making myself as versatile and flexible as possible. I think that’s the only way to keep getting jobs and to survive as a writer in this industry.

LF: I see that in addition to your numerous other talents, you are also a composer. What instruments do you play, and are you self taught or did you take lessons? Who are your musical inspirations?

MP: I played bass in a metal band for years when I was younger. I also play guitar. Both were self-taught. These days, I do most of my composing with synthesizers and a virtual studio. As far as influences go, I was in high school when the whole Seattle grunge scene took off in the 90’s and I’m still a big fan of bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. I actually wrote a drama called Long Gone Day that was inspired by the death of Alice in Chains’ lead singer, Layne Staley. It premiered last summer at Montreal’s World Film Festival. I also have to admit to taking guilty pleasure in 80’s glam metal. I can’t help it; it’s just fun music. I’m honestly just a fan of music in general, so I really do have a taste for everything from White Zombie to Jose Gonzalez to Thievery Corporation. Lately I’ve really been digging this wicked band from Toronto called The Birthday Massacre. When I’m writing, I like listening to more atmospheric and instrumental stuff like Midnight Syndicate’s albums.

LF: Is there room for another chapter in the series for Moe? If so would you be interested in writing it? What are you working on at the moment? Will you be directing again anytime soon?

MP: Geoff and Melissa have already committed to making the “On Ice” films into a trilogy and they’ve asked me to start putting together a draft for the third film. So you can definitely look forward to more bloody mayhem from everyone’s favorite maniac mechanic! I’ve always considered myself a writer first, so there’s no plans to direct again any time soon. I did Sorrow Creek as a bit of an experiment ‘cause I felt it would help me grow as a writer if I took a turn behind the camera. It was an enlightening experience but I’ve come to accept that my rightful place is typing at my laptop. Aside from working on the third “On Ice” script, right now I’m in the process of trying to secure an agent to represent my first novel, All Hallows’ Eve. It’s a historical thriller that takes place in Salem, Mass. one hundred years after the witch trials. As a terrible curse descends upon the town, a single mother must rescue her daughter from the vengeful ghosts of those hanged for witchcraft. I originally wrote the story as a screenplay and it took 4th Prize in the American Screenwriters Association’s 11th Annual Screenplay Competition, as well as a finalist prize in Creative Screenwriting’s Next Great John Carpenter Movie Contest.

LF: What scares you? We're all scared of war and disease and things like that. But when it comes to horror films, what genuinely scares you? 

MP: I’m a bit of a control-freak and I find the idea of helpless and powerlessness to be completely terrifying. I honestly can’t think of anything worse than being forced to watch something horrible happen to my loved ones and being powerless to do anything about it. Horror films that explore that idea really have an affect on me. Some of the better home invasions films really hit a nerve for me, as do some of the classic exploitation films like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. I even thought Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes was particularly effective in that respect.  

LF: Name a film you walked out of at the theater.

MP: I honestly can’t remember ever walking out of a theater. Once I’ve paid for it, I try to give every movie a fair shot in case there’s something redeeming about the end. I do remember falling asleep in the theater during Van Helsing, though. I wanted to like it and even tried watching it again years later, but I fell asleep in the exact same place. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Now that I think about it, I recently watched Munich and hated it so much I might have walked out if I was watching it in the theater. Then again, Speilberg gave us Jaws and Indiana Jones so he gets a free pass in my books.

LF: If you could punch one person in the face, who would it be?

MP: Do I really have to pick just one? Damn... Last week I would have said Justin Bieber for being such an obnoxious turd. Today, I’d go with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer for constantly promising me “Breaking News” about the missing Malaysian jet when there’s clearly no news at all. Also, even though I could never actually bring myself to hurt a woman, I’d love to write some way for Moe to deal with Taylor Swift.

LF: Has anyone ever made you feel 'star-struck'?

MP: Not really, but I do have a short list of people who I’d love to sit around and drink beer with. Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, Stephen King (coffee, not beer), and Sean Penn are all up there. If I could throw in a couple of dead people, I’d include Jim Morrison, Hemingway, and Joey Ramone.

LF: What's your favorite horror film of all time and / or the scariest movie you've ever seen?

MP: That’s kinda like picking your favorite child! I like so many films for so many different reasons. Believe it or not, The Blair Witch Project scared the crap out of me. I saw it in theatres on opening night, and because of all the brilliant pre-release hype, we were all suckered into thinking that what we were watching was real. No one had really done the found footage angle since Cannibal Holocaust and I remember gripping my seat and thinking I was actually watching people meet their ends. My wife and I spend a lot of time hiking and camping in the mountains, and I still think of that movie whenever I hear noises in the woods in the middle of the night. The Exorcist and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre are definitely candidates for favorite of all time, but I guess if I had to pick just one, I’d have to go back to John Carpenter’s Halloween. For me, there’s no better boogieman than Michael Myers.

LF: Thanks again, Michael. 


 - Leo Francis