FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Justin Martell and Austin Jennings from Eight Eyes

A quick chat with Producer and Director

James Whittington
August 27, 2023

Eight Eyes, which is showing today at FrightFest is a tense journey into a surreal and deadly excursion. We chatted to Justin Martell (Producer) and Austin Jennings (Director) about this vivid movie,

NYX: How did the project for Eight Eyes come together?

AJ: It was kismet, honestly. I had been working on other scripts with my collaborator Matt Frink, and Justin Martell (one of the producers our SHUDDER show, THE LAST DRIVE-IN with JOE BOB BRIGGS) approached me with the idea of developing a film project alongside Vinegar Syndrome utilizing his production experience in the Balkans to find a story unique to the area. The realistic possibility space for the film - budget, locations, and likely obstacles - was laid out for me by Justin, since he'd produced films in Serbia already. That was vital as we were able to work backwards from the reality of the resources, talent, and locations at our disposal to develop the film's identity without wasting time on anything outside the scope of what was realistic.

JM: I had been doing production services in Eastern Europe through my company Pioneer Media. PM is basically the international arm of our US company Not the Funeral Home, under which we produce The Last Drive-in with Joe Bob Briggs. Through Pioneer Media we've done a wide range of production service projects such as Lloyd Kaufman's #ShakespearesShitstorm (2018) and Fangoria's Castle Freak (2020), both of which we shot in Albania, as well as The Asylum's Dracula: The Original Living Vampire (2021), Full Moon's Subspecies V: Blood Rise (2023) and the forthcoming Shudder/Adams Family Films co-production HELL HOLE, all shot in Serbia. A lot of these projects either used the locales as another location or contained specific plot elements that lent  themselves to historic locations in the region, such as castles. I really wanted to do a project that incorporated themes and locations I had seen and learned about and seen while spending time in the region and knew we'd never get a production services contract that would enable us to do that. So I went to Austin and Vinegar Syndrome with a general idea for the project and some ideas for cool locations and it grew very quickly from there since it coincided with VS getting into original productions, and me and Austin had some time between Joe Bob shoots.

NYX: As Director, Austin you capture many elements from classic Euro cinema such as the work and imagery of Jess Franco and Mario Bava, was this the intention from the start?

AJ: Yes and no. Obviously I adore and am inspired by 70's and 80's exploitation cinema, as evidenced by how we program our show on Shudder. However, I didn't want or plan explicit homages in Eight Eyes. Something my co-writer Matt and I frequently bristle at is the wide gulf between "vintage" - the specific characteristics of art and craft that's inherent to the tools available at the time - and "retro", which is just mimicry of a bygone era. Our goal was to create a film that had the authentic spirit of a forgotten Euro exploitation film, and to do so without resorting to corny pastiche.

It would have been easy to shoot a litany of shock zooms and have Goblin rip-off tracks littering the film and then tell people "it's a love letter to the 70's!" but that would be a hollow approach. Those choices were made by directors like Martino, Bava, Argento, Franco, and Fulci because of then-current tools, trends, and traditions - but not out of imitation or aesthetic navel-gazing.  

Instead, we limited our tools to match those of the era, then reacted to those limitations to find parallel solutions to the same problems those 70's films had - both aesthetic and practical. Shooting on 16mm forced us to approach scenes efficiently given the film's fairly short production window, and we leaned into the reality of those limitations to make our coverage decisions. In many instances, I would need to work out the day's shotlist with our Director of Photography Sean Dahlberg mere moments before a scene began due to the reality of scheduling and location access, which meant not being able to rely on accurate storyboards since the geography would be new. However, on most shoot days I was excited about the freedom that allowed. That's EXACTLY the conditions that so many of my favorite exploitation films were made - a set of tools, a timeframe to deliver, and a talented crew all trying to capture an ambitious script by the day's end.

So while my influences are obvious, I think - especially in the second half of the film - my hope is that they would remain just that: "influences" instead of mere mimicry. I was hoping to guide our team to work "in the mode" of filmmakers of that era without necessarily borrowing their individual trademarks too directly, with the expectation that we'd make different but tonally appropriate decisions to tell our story.

JM: We were very conscientious about walking that fine line between homage and contributing something new, and I hope viewers and critics will find we succeeded in creating something unique instead of just mimicking our influences. That's one of the reasons we incorporated a lot of input on the story from our local team and actors from Serbia who are less influenced by genre cinema.

NYX: The whole cast are superb in the movie, were you involved in the casting, and did they have much time to rehearse?

AJ: I had been wanting to work with Emily Sweet for some time, as I'd seen her other work and felt she was always the bright spot in them, but her instincts were held back by the plot-first nature of genre films. Cass was designed with room for Emily to contribute herself to smaller moments, and her instincts as an in-the-moment actor often surprised me with fresh approaches during multiple takes. (Especially impressive given how few takes for each setup we shot, since we were shooting on film.)

Bradford Thomas was an actor I actually knew personally, as he's one of Justin's oldest friends! We'd worked together on shorter projects before, and I've always loved his playfulness no matter the role - just absolutely game for anything. He brought a really interesting pathos to Gav. In the scheme of horror, the role the character plays is

I rehearsed the script remotely with the two of them, both alone and together, over Zoom. We would make script changes based on those sessions, sometimes throwing out whole exchanges and reworking them if they felt disingenuous. However, during those rehearsals I always read for Saint Peter, played by the inimitable Bruno Veljanovski. I wanted to limit their interactions with him until the final rehearsals just before filming, so that they could carry that new energy with them into the shoot.

Bruno and I took a different approach in working on Saint Peter. Prior to coming to Serbia, Matt Frink and I had worked out a fair amount of backstory for the character beyond what would be seen on screen - his movements before the film, family history, his personal fascinations. But instead of trying to directly impart that with Bruno, he and I would spend long hours walking around Belgrade improvising in character. I would play the part of an American abroad looking for a good time, and he would try to seduce me out of the safety of my vacation plans and agree to travel with him. We'd then pause and study the results, assigning meaning where we could and discarding anything we felt was dishonest. The end result motivated his presence on screen, giving him internal games to play that were only known to the two of us - and in many cases, only to Bruno.

And of course, we were blessed with an incredible cast of locals who weren't shy about helping us find an authentic Balkan voice. I was able to work in a bit of rehearsal time with them, though for scheduling reasons many I could not meet with until shortly before their scenes. However, in those cases (such as with the wedding) the immediacy I was after lended itself to non over-preparing them - and luckily for me, the local actors were terrific, easy-going, and full of ideas. While I approved all final casting decisions, ultimately the casting duties were handled by the locals at Red Productions, with the exception of the actors playing Uncle (Jovan Stanković) and Wax Baby (Nenad Mijatović) who we actually met by chance at a bar a mere week before production began!

JM: I had the privilege of working with Emily Sweet in Albania on Castle Freak (2020) in which she played a supporting role and really wanted to see her in a leading role. I also knew from some of the challenges that arose while filming in Albania that Emily, quite frankly, is an actress who wouldn’t be phased by traveling to an unfamiliar place, or the challenging workflow of a low budget feature.

With Bruno there’s a really funny story. In 2017 when I was doing an initial research trip and traveling to a wide range of countries in Eastern Europe, exploring what I could of the local Film industries, I had trouble getting a reply from the film center in Macedonia. So I went on Facebook and I found a small Facebook group called “the Macedonia Film commission”. I sent the group message and got a reply, so we set a date and time for the meeting in Skopje. On the day of the meeting as I was waiting by the Alexander the Great Statue, this young guy in a leather jacket and cowboy boots, comes up and says: I’m the Macedonia Film commission. It was Bruno! A local writer, director, and actor.

He showed me some short films he had done which included a very well done low budget period short, and we talked about how it was difficult for filmmakers in Macedonia to get government financing for films that might not necessarily serve national interests, such as genre movies. So we stayed in touch after that, and finally when we were casting for Saint Peter, who was originally intended I think by Austin and Matt Frink, to be much older, Bruno immediately popped into my mind. I sent him a message, and I said, “ can you play a villain?” He said, “I am a villain.” I said, “ can you be a leading villain?” He said, “I AM a leading villain.” Then he proceeded to send an audition video that blew everyone away and that was it. We had Saint Peter.

As Austin mentioned, for Gav, Bradford Thomas has been in almost every project that I’ve done since college, doing a wide variety of roles ranging from cop to nerdy scientist to - now- hipster from Brooklyn running around Eastern Europe with a super eight camera! As with Emily, I had worked with him in supporting roles, but really wanted to see him in a leading role, so I recommended him to Austin and he auditioned with Austin and got the role from there.

NYX: Were there any issues when shooting the movie on location as it seems to have been shot in a rather run down area?

AJ: Nothing too rough, though the local crew definitely let us know when to mind our manners! There's a scene that takes place in a bar midway through the film that was populated by the bar's regulars, who were at first curious about the scene but grew bored and restless after a few takes.

However, probably the way that political and economic reality of the region MOST affected our production was our 16mm filmstock. Sourcing it and getting it to the lab in Romania undisturbed was a real feat, which Justin can better speak to.

Not really. You have to be really careful in some places because they can be really sensitive about how the country and local customs are portrayed. When we filled the Castle Freak in Albania, for instance, they were really sensitive to how we would portray Albania and Albanians. The Serbians however, seemed to Revel in anything that might make serbia are Serbians seem scary, ha ha!

JM: The only real challenges were logistics, and the biggest one was navigating having our Roth film stock delivered from a lab in Romania, which is in the European Union, to Serbia, which is not EU, and then sending the unprocessed Film back into the EU to be processed at the lab in Bucharest. But the lab in Bucharest, As well as our partners in Serbia, were very skilled in navigating some of the tricky situations that arose sending that Film back-and-forth across the border.

NYX: Were any instructions to the crew lost in translation?

AJ: There were a few difficulties when working out some of the more complicated set-ups, but most of the Serbian crew spoke and understood English as well as I do! The crew were amazing, and on top of doing top-notch technical work, were instrumental in the film finding its voice. I accepted my ignorance as an alien observer to the area early on, and relied on discussions with the crew to fill in my knowledge of cultural differences big and small.

JM: Whenever you do a project like this, there are always small things that get lost in translation. It's the nature of the beast. The only real example I can remember is when - and I won't say the character so as to not spoil anything - a particular character is bludgeoned to death and we wanted the head to smush into a pile of skull fragments and brains. The FX team, headed by local Serbian FX legend Miroslav Lakobrija (A Serbian Film, Hellraiser (2022), made such an incredible recreation of the actor's head that was so beautiful that we didn't want to destroy it. However, the head was made from hard rubber and couldn't be squashed, which forced us to change the effect a bit but I think in a way that ended up being more effective. So sometimes these things lead to happy accidents.

NYX: Are all the effects practical and done of set?

AJ: All of the gore effects were practical and were done on set. It was important to me that we did it that way - another way to limit our toolset to mirror those of the films we hoped to evoke. The animated sequences in the back half of the film were also done in-camera, using a multi-plane glass rig with projected images and reflected light.

JM: It was very important given our influences as well as the fact that we were shooting on film that we kept things practical, even the animations.

NYX: The film seems to have been captured using a wide variety of cameras, did this cause any issues in the edit?

AJ: Not at all.

JM: No, and we were also careful where we used each camera. The K3 and Bolex were used for b-roll and special sequences and not cross cut with the Aaton, for instance.

NYX: Do you get nervous when a project you’re connected with is played to audience for the first time?

AJ: Of course! There's no more naked feeling than sitting in a room with people seeing the end result of something you've toiled over without the context of how it was made. You have to let go of the part of you that wants to say: "Well, we had THIS planned, but then the rain came..." because ultimately, your role is over, and the film belongs to the viewer now.

JM: Yes, of course. You go through all kinds of crazy experiences, shooting across three countries, developing the film and another, and then working on all these practical animation effects in post, so naturally, you’re going to be nervous and sensitive to how an audience reacts to the movie. I admire any filmmaker who is not sensitive to that.

NYX: Do you believe in any urban myths and legends?

AJ: Not directly. I think most urban myths and legends are the result of our innate dramatic appetites creating stories for things beyond our understanding. The brain demands order, and we'll make a ghost out of any dark shape, be it tales of a looming cryptid on Highway 85 or rumours about THAT ONE HOUSE up the block with the spooky fence.

However, it's my belief that once an urban legend scratches its way into a culture it becomes tangible in the sense that the fiction intersects with the daily lives of real people. Maybe it changes your route to work, becomes a working part of your imagination, or just gives local kids something to be brave about.

One of my favourites of these are the Moodus noises, a phenomenon which Justin actually introduced me to. I just find that local myth particularly eerie, for whatever reason, since it's borne out of something physical that's beyond understanding.

JM: Not any I can stay publicly without any social/political consequences.

NYX: So, what are you working on at the moment?

AJ: Currently working on directing the next season of our ongoing hit series, THE LAST DRIVE-IN with JOE BOB BRIGGS on SHUDDER. I'm also developing a few potential concepts for my next feature.

JM: Right now, we also have a supernatural thriller in festivals called the Puppetman, directed by Brandon Christensen (Superhost, Z), which will be released on Shudder this fall. We are also in post production on the reboot of street trash, directed by Ryan Kruger and shot on 35mm as a co-production with Vinegar Syndrome and Screambox, as well as our co-production  with Shudder Adams Family Films Hell Hole which was also shot in Serbia last year. We also just wrapped production on a small sci-fi-thriller called Black Eyed Susan, written and directed by Scooter McCrae and shot in Brooklyn also on 16mm. So there's plenty going on and we're happy to be busy!

NYX: Justin Martell and Austin Jennings, thank you very much.