Having previously written and produced the Al Pacino/Karl Urban crime film ‘Hangman’, writer/producer Michael Caissie has now turned his hand to feature film directing.
His debut is ‘Hunter’s Moon’, a horror/thriller about a family who moved to an orchard and are terrorised by a group of young delinquents while also hiding a dark secret themselves.
I caught up with Caissie to discuss his new film…
Where did the idea for ‘Hunter’s Moon’ come from?
Originally I was running restaurants. I was a Chef out here in California. I started at the bottom and worked my way up. When I opened up this one in Irvine, I found myself working seventy, eighty a week and that’s when Hangman had been optioned. I don’t think Al [Pacino] was involved at that point. I think it was Travolta. Peter Travis was going to direct at that point. I talked to the wife and said that I wasn’t seeing the family because I was working seventy, eighty hours a week at the restaurant. So I took the leap of faith, left the restaurant and put all those hours into writing. As silly as that sounds, I literally quit the restaurant and sat out the front chain-smoking and drinking enough coffee to kill a small horse [laughs] and just wrote, excessively. It (Hunter’s Moon) was one of the first ones. There were two. ‘Sin Origen’ was a vampire story that was translated into Spanish and is coming out soon. The second one I did was ‘Hunter’s Moon’. It was back then called ‘The Orchard’. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I don’t remember writing (it). I know I wrote it in that little window and I had the concepts and I think I remember thinking that it would be cool if there was a family that was werewolves and I turn all the horror clichés on its head. The family are moving away from the city to protect the girls. That was the start of it. I don’t want to say it wrote itself. But by the time I had the concept and worked backwards then it was just about filling in the pieces. Let me say this, after writing the vampire script I wanted to take these familiar horror folklores, take some of these horror clichés that I grew up loving and still love, and kind of try to find how I can spin them on their head. That’s how the story came about.
So what was the next stage for you in getting it made?
I did a lot of ghost-writing jobs after I left the restaurant. On one of them the director said; “This script is really good. I’d like to put your name on it too.” So at the same time as I’m trying to figure out the business my manager is saying; “Dude, why are you doing this for someone else? Do it for yourself. You want to direct.” I kept putting it aside though. Then I was out to lunch with Arnold Rifkin, who had become a mentor by that point, sand he said that he had a financier that is looking to do movies. It didn’t really work out with them. We spent about six months trying to get a cast in place. We kept putting out offers and putting out offers and putting out offers. The Sheriff’s role is not the most of immediate roles on the page. Had made a few connections and got close to Jay Mohr, who loved the script, and I talked to a few other people. Everyone who read it kept saying that they wanted to do it. By about six months in I had a cast to die for.
When 2017 rolled around we had another actor cast in the Sheriff role and we had some financiers who were very generous with money, but I had to explain to them that I was having trouble raising the rest of the money. We had a cast. The pushback was that I was a first-time director. I said: “Can I go shoot as much as I can in Kentucky. Then put a trailer together and use that trailer to upcast?” Ultimately, that’s what we ended up doing. The issue being that I had no intention of recasting the Sheriff but I had to. So I wound up having to re-shoot about 80% of the movie in L.A. two years later. So, Hunter’s Moon was partially shot in Kentucky and partially in Los Angeles. It was almost like going to film school without going to film school [laughs]. Everything that happened – good, bad, ugly, everything in-between – happens. It was a learning curve. We really lucked out with Thomas [Jane]. He was fantastic. He came in. We had to get him in and then out. We had a couple of brutal days where we shot some crazy page numbers to get him in and out. I lucked out with that cast. From start to finish. It was a labour of love that literally took… Only just recently did we finally get all the pieces to the distributors.
Going back to you talking about it taking you two years of stop/start to finish filming. Was it difficult for you to get back into that directing mindset? Especially for partially shot scenes that had not been finished.
I ended up using two DP’s (Director of Photography) because by the time we were able to get the second portion greenlit I couldn’t get the first DP, Edd Lukas, back. I was kinda bummed out, but I had just done a TV show here in Glendale, California, where I ended up working with Ben Kufrin and he became the second DP on ‘Hunter’s Moon’. I guess to answer your question, I evolved as a director in a good way. It was almost perfect that we had that stop so I could learn to shoot in this crazy hectic way. Which became the case for budgetary and time reasons. As far as keeping the tone, I was fortunate enough to have Edd and Ben. Ben watched Edd’s work and tried to mimic. I also give a lot of credit to the actors who just showed up and were ready to work. It is a lot easier to do this if the actors… the actors had lived with it for two years too. I think it was one of those things that at some point all of us said that it was never going to get finished. I think I was the only one, at one point, who thought the movie was going to get finished. I started calling people saying; “It’s still happening.” And they were like “really?” and they were surprised [laughs]. I can’t be that guy that never finishes his first film. So many people had put time and effort into it. To fully answer your question, it was easy to step back in because I had never left it. I knew I had to finish. It was a hustle for two years.
How did you cast the three female leads?
I had watched a show called ‘The Returned’. India Ennenga was one of the stars of the show. There was something about her. She is intelligent and endearing and caring. And both vulnerable and strong at the same time. I saw her as the middle daughter. I reached out to her agent via one of the producers. Got her the script, we had a Skype call and she was like “I’m in!” I started looking on that agency’s website and Katrina [Bowden] was on there. After 30 Rock and Tucker & Dale it seemed to be she was being cast as “the pretty blonde girl”, but there is so much more to her than that. I met with her and she was in. Then it was down to the third actress.
Originally it was meant to be Sydney Sweeney, whose career has shot up after appearing on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. When we went to go shoot in Kentucky Sydney just wasn’t available. There was like a six day gap that I just couldn’t afford to wait. I know she was upset. I met with Emmalee Parker. She had just turned sixteen and she had that young, sweet innocence. But also had a lot of… I thought she had great ability to communicate without speaking and that was important to the part of Wendy. It was one of those things where meeting her was great. We went and shot it, and just seeing how those three connected along with Amanda Wyss, who plays the mom, and Jay (Mohr), the dad, it was almost as if they were a real family. Over the two years all of them had stayed in touch. It was almost like two years of a family evolution. So when we went to finish there were no more jitters.
This is a werewolf movie. Did you take an inspiration from other werewolf movies such as An American Werewolf in London? Or did you purposely stay away from those?
This is one of the things that as a filmmaker has been kind of frustrating. I didn’t want this to be marketed as a werewolf movie. I wanted it to be “what’s lurking in the woods?” I wanted it to be about the characters. I met Vincent J. Guastini, who did the werewolf. A ridiculously talented VFX special make-up artist. He gave me a couple of designs. He said we could do this or do that. But I didn’t want it to be the bones cracking and the changing. I’m a werewolf fanboy. But it took away from the family unit and what they were. I was influenced by Jaws, to be honest with you. I also wanted it to be a homage to a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.
It was originally called ‘The Orchard’. So why the name change?
That was the distributors. I fought against it because the moment you make it Hunter’s Moon and put anything remotely close to a werewolf it becomes a werewolf movie. To Grindstone’s credit, they were really cool. We went back and forth. We had a couple of options. I kept pushing for ‘The Orchard’ because if someone was surfing Netflix or whatever I wanted something that my wife would pick out… something that didn’t look like a werewolf movie. I just thought there was more depth to the movie on that level. But I totally got it from a marketing stand point. They were saying that the werewolf angle is interesting – Don’t shy away from it. It was a marketing choice. But to their credit, I will say they were very respectful.
You wrote a film for Al Pacino (‘Hangman’). ‘Hunter’s Moon’ is your directorial feature film debut. You have another film, ‘Sin Origen’, being released soon. You are clearly a busy guy. What is next?
I just did a TV show called ‘Purgatory’. I was in Armenia recently. When coronavirus hit I was in Armenia. I was working on the TV show which was originally a TV show in Armenia and then was translated into English, so I worked on the script. Originally it was one 16 episode season but now it has been broken up into two 8 episodes seasons because of having to stop production. I had to return to the States [due to production shutting down]. What I’ve been doing since returning in late March is working remotely with the editors to complete those 8 episodes. PopStar TV is an app and you can watch the show on there.
Basically, the premise is fourteen strangers all get invited to this exclusive vacation place in the middle of nowhere and then they get lured down into this underground cave. They get trapped down there and each one of them has to do with someone’s plot for revenge. So as the season unfolds you see how each person is involved in this one individual’s death. So the first season is now on PopStar TV. I’ll go back to Armenia, once the government allows it, to co-direct the rest of the show. I co-directed it with an Armenian director, which was great. It is one of the best things I’ve done in terms of directing. Prior to COVID, I had a feature I was trying to put together called Wrath. I was reaching out to actors. But that has been put on hold due to the scope of it. As far as writing, I wrote a passion project kind of in the vein of ‘Taxi Driver’. Very dark and takes places in the same time period. A therapeutic… I put a lot of my pains and personal heartache and just disguised them and put them into a 70s world set up in New York City. It is the most unique script I’ve ever written. I’ve always dreamed of writing a novel, so I’m now taking that script and I’m adapting it into a novel.
Are you writing anything with Pacino in mind?
I started to write a script for Al almost immediately after Hangman. I passed it to Johnny (Martin – director of ‘Hangman’). But he said I would have a hard time selling it as it didn’t have much action. So I put that on pause. When I was in Armenian, I met a British actor who lives in Armenia and we hit it off. I started talking to him about the project and I said to him, “I’m writing this for Al, but I’m having a hard time so do you want to co-write it?” So, he has been working on that remotely and I’ll shepherd it. I had been thinking about how Al’s favourite director is Sidney Lumet and how Al was drawn to working with him. I wanted to write Al in a place where he could be Al. Not the yelling and stuff, but the sophisticated and soft-spoken.
The thing about Al is that he is so gracious and smart and witty and funny, and it is all encapsulated in this guy who has the “It” when he walks in the room and four seconds in he is making you seem like you’re the most important person. It’s amazing. I’ve never met anyone like that. So the part, I tried to wrap that around at. It is basically a heist film that starts with a veteran who is living on the streets of Los Angeles, amongst other veterans, and is in love with Shakespeare and the other great writers. Much like Al is. So I started to put that in, and one of the easy things is that I can hear Al. When I’m writing dialogue I can hear Al saying it. It’s Al and this woman but there isn’t a love between them. It’s platonic. So, I would love to do that film with Al.
‘Hunter’s Moon’ is available on DVD & Digital Download now.