FrightFest 2023 - Interview with Michael J Hurst director of Transmission

A choat with the director of the world's first channel-surfing horror movie

James Whittington
August 28, 2023

One of the stand-out movies of FrightFest 2023 was Michael J Hurst's Transmission so we tracked him down for a quick chat.

NYX: Have you always been a fan of horror movies?

MH: Since I was a kid and my family sat down to watch JAWS on TV - I distinctly remember my younger brother being terrified and my Mum having to repeat over and over, “It’s only a movie”...

NYX: Was there one person who inspired you to work in film?

MH: Spielberg, then James Cameron. Like all kids with the movie- making bug we used to remake our favorite movies on VHS camcorders and I think we ‘remade’ The Terminator 10 times!

NYX: Where did the channel-surfing idea first come from?

MH: Years ago, I was reading a review of a really bad movie and the reviewer was criticizing the somewhat disjointed story by saying something like the transitions between scenes was like changing the channel on a TV - and the concept for the format just popped into my head at that moment. I first wrote it as a script called Parasite, a channel-surfing riff on a story that was a bit like Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (I even told him about it in person one evening!) but that didn’t go anywhere. I remember my manager at the time told me, “This isn’t a movie”.

But, being stubborn and really wanting to tell a story this way, I then wrote an all-new version, this time about an alien invasion, very much the TV version of the old Orson Welles radio broadcast, which I managed to option to Fox, believe it or not. But after a year of development hell they decided against, you know, actually making it!

Finally I decided I was going to completely reinvent it, write an all-new story and self-finance it - it was, I now realized, just too strange a format to get traditionally financed. Producers didn’t “get it”. So I wrote TRANSMISSION as it is now, a narrative on TV that’s actually about a TV broadcast and therefore (I think, hope and believe simultaneously) the best possible version. And this time I just made it myself!

NYX: How big was your storyboard so you didn’t get lost?

MH: I didn’t have an actual storyboard, just pages and pages and pages of notes in a notebook - which is how I write all my scripts. I knew the basic story of every channel, the only really crucial decisions were about when and how to intermix those different stories, when and how to reveal the connections. And, to be honest, a lot of those decisions were actually reconfigured during post-production, during the editing process. So it was a slightly organic way of doing it which sounds painless and fun but wasn’t either!

NYX: Was it logistically hard to get that cast?

MH: Honestly, 95 percent of that work was done by two of my fellow producers, Pat Kusnadi and Robbie Dias. They are both huge horror fans with a lot of contacts within the horror community of LA. They did a great job arranging the whole cast. Dave Sheridan was actually their suggestion and their contact but the really weird thing was that I’d actually made a movie in my hometown Brighton back when we were all teenagers!

NYX: Vernon Wells brings raw strangeness to his character, would you agree?

MH: Indeed, he does! I’ve been a big fan of Vernon Wells since his seminal films of the 80’s and he was great to work with! He turned up, knowing his character and the overall story and just got down to business. In between set-ups he would regale us with Commando and Road Warrior stories, another bonus. His dialogue was scripted - the whole movie was - BUT I didn’t want him to learn or say the written lines, just riff on the basic ideas, as I find that’s the way to get more naturalistic performances when doing any kind of ‘found footage’. So I would just tell him the basic idea I wanted him to get across and why Frank Roth would think that way, then we just rolled camera, sat back and let Vernon create.

NYX: Did you have much budget to play with as the FX look amazing?

MH: No! I had some money left in a bank account that I’d somehow forgotten about, from years earlier, which I think was actually from my first ‘real’ movie gig. And I got hired to write a screenplay for the legendary Roger Corman at that time so I put those two sums of money together and that was the budget we at least tried to stick to! The visual FX, all the spaceship shots etc were actually the cheapest shots in the whole movie - most of those shots cost me precisely zero dollars. It’s a weird world we now live in as filmmakers in which scenes set in a coffee shop can cost more to film than scenes set on a dead spaceship!

NYX: How would you describe the movie?

MH: As the world’s first channel-surfing horror movie, an attempt to do something different by taking a traditional horror story and telling it in a brand new way.

NYX: Do you believe that curses can exist?

MH: My higher-brain says no, that it’s all just superstition etc. But, like everyone, I also have a lizard-brain and that part of me says, “Well, wait a minute”. So I try and avoid walking under ladders or breaking a mirror and I wouldn’t go near a Ouija board if you paid me...

NYX: Is there too much choice for viewers these days?

MH: Sometimes I feel that way, it certainly is time-consuming being a Star Wars fan these days! But the cream always rises, fans always discern what’s great and share that information so the truly great shows do still get noticed and appreciated. People forget just how many ‘programmers’ the studios were just routinely churning out in the 1930’s and 40’s, for example, hundreds and hundreds of movies none of us have ever heard of, just made to fill the theaters the studios then owned. Then we watch Casablanca and Wizard of Oz and declare that it was the Golden Age.

NYX: Are you a fan of physical media?

MH: F***, yes. I have way too many DVD’s and Blu-Rays. I can only half-open the door to my man-cave/study at home because there are boxes piled up against the wall. I’m old-school, if I like a movie I want to own a copy of it, I want it in my hands, not in a cloud. But, having said that, I stream a lot of movies too!

NYX: Will you be nervous when transmission plays at FrightFest?

MH: F***, yes. Very.

NYX: Do you have a favourite creative role?

MH: I prefer writing. The writer is the god of the story, everything flows from the story, then the screenplay. The reason Hollywood tends to treat writers badly is that they inherently realize that and resent it!

NYX: What are you up to at the moment?

MH: Things are on hold due to the strikes at the moment but I’m writing a few different scripts and, hopefully, waiting for the strikes to be resolved so I can do an action thriller called Blast Radius (about a car-bomb that gets car-jacked.) Then I plan to self-finance another horror film because, despite all the pain and stress, it was the most creatively fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my career!

NYX: Michael J Hurst, thank you very much.