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Interview: Director BJ McDonnell Talks Rock and Roll, Horror and the Foo Fighters’ ‘Studio 666’

February 16, 2022Ben MK

One of the most iconic rock bands of the last 25 years, the Foo Fighters released nine studio albums between 1995 and 2017, have won a staggering 30 Grammy Awards, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2021. For their tenth album, however, frontman Dave Grohl wanted to do something a little different — and so, Studio 666 was born. No, this isn't a behind-the-scenes, making-of documentary that gives viewers an inside look at how their newest record, Medicine at Midnight, came to be. On the contrary, this fictional account of the Foo Fighters' blood-soaked misadventures recording the album was inspired by the band's actual experiences recording in a purportedly haunted Los Angeles mansion. And for fans of both the Foo Fighters' music and ultra gory horror movies, the result is nothing short of a terrifying good time.

I caught up with director BJ McDonnell to chat about Studio 666, his love of horror and his favorite horror movie influences, as well as to find out whether he might already have some ideas in mind for a sequel.

You've worked on a number of high-profile movies in a variety of genres, but as a film director you've gravitated towards horror in particular. What is it about horror movies that you love so much?

McDonnell: I always loved horror films growing up. As a young kid, it was always more entertaining to me what you can do when it comes to horror. From monster horror movies to slasher horror movies, I always was drawn more towards the excitement of the movies themselves. It's like a ride. I always enjoy seeing the creativity of monsters being made. That's what drew me into horror films mostly, and I've loved it ever since.

Prior to Studio 666, you did a film and several music videos with another iconic rock band, Slayer. How did your work with that band prepare you for working with the Foo Fighters? And is there a story behind how you came to be involved in Studio 666?

McDonnell: Working with musicians is always a fun thing. It's very different than working with actors. The Slayer thing came about just because I knew that they were looking to make a music video for their new album that was coming out. And they were looking for a horror director, so Nuclear Blast Records was interviewing a few horror directors and I got to go in and basically was like, "I wanna do a video that's Slayer. Something that's more graphic. Something that speaks for their music." So I did the video, pitched it to them, and they loved it.

Cut to Dave [Grohl] from the Foo Fighters, [who] was coming up with an idea to do a horror film. And two of his producers, John Ramsay and Jim Rota, who did Sound City and Sonic Highways, basically said, "Hey, you should talk to our friend BJ. He did all these Slayer videos. You should check them out." And Dave checked out the videos, and he loved it. He basically said, "Alright, send the pitch to BJ, see what he thinks." So the guys sent me Dave's pitch of what he wanted to do, and I came up with my own ideas of what I wanted to add to it with Dave. We had a meeting, talked about horror films and the things that we loved about horror, and what the vibe of the film was gonna be, and right and then and there we said, "Let's do it." And that's how the movie came to be.

Speaking of the vibe of the movie, what surprised me after seeing the trailer was just how gory and scary the film actually is, as opposed to being more of a goofy horror comedy. Can you speak a bit about balancing the horror and comedy aspects of Studio 666?

McDonnell: Going back to the meeting with Dave, we wanted to make sure that we kept the comedy level at a place where the Foo Fighters music videos were, so it entertained the fans of the Foo Fighters. I wanted to make sure that we shot the movie seriously — with a serious look, serious in tone, serious lighting — and make the horror actually scary and make the gore super violent and super gory. I thought that whole mixture of the fun of the Foo Fighters' music videos and the gore that I worked in with horror films was just gonna be perfect.

There's at least one homage in the movie (which was a nod to The Exorcist, in the scene where Will Forte's food delivery guy character first shows up at the house). Are there any other tributes in Studio 666 to other horror movies that viewers should look out for?

McDonnell: I would say, for true horror fans that are watching the film, they will definitely be able to spot certain homages of certain shots that were from other movies. I personally wanted to throw in some little elements there, just for people that love horror movies. That they would catch and go, "Oh, that's awesome!" Just like you're saying that you caught The Exorcist shot, [which] was exactly what we were going for with our delivery guy. There's certain characters I modelled off of The Fog. There's certain things also, like the effects that they used in the pool, [that were] created [out of] my love of using practical effects but adding in the CG world.

On a similar note, are there any horror films that are your favorites or that are your biggest influences?

McDonnell: Oh man. Most John Carpenter films from back in the day inspire me. Like The Thing, I love that movie. I love Halloween, I love [the first] Nightmare on Elm Street and Part 3, The Dream Warriors. The Sam Raimi Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness — those are the kind of movies that I really love.

Of course, Dave Grohl and rest of the band get to show off their comedic timing in the film. But you also have some great comic actors like Jeff Garlin, Whitney Cummings and the aforementioned Will Forte in the movie. What was it like working with the band and with that impressive cast?

McDonnell: It was great working with the band cuz everyone was so ready to do it. It was fun to watch the guys get to banter back and forth, so I get to see more of a behind-the-scenes of what probably would go on when the guys are actually practicing and coming up with stuff. And just watching everybody having fun riffing off of what we have in the script. So we let them do their own thing and say their own dialogue. We got so many good takes out of just letting the guys be themselves. And the cast is fantastic. We picked a lot of people that can do improv, and it was important for them to be able to improv with what the Foo Fighters were doing also. Everybody had a good time, everybody was laughing the whole time. It was just a job we never wanted to end.

I also noticed Jimmi Simpson, who some viewers might recognize from Westworld, in the very last scene as well. How did he come to be in the film?

McDonnell: You're the first person to actually mention that. [laughs] Jimmi was on board from the very beginning. He would come to script meetings with us. Me and Jim Rota, the other producer, talked about how it would be nice to get an actual actor there, if any of the Foo Fighters had questions about acting. And Jimmi's a good friend of Jim's, and I knew Jimmi cuz I did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So he was helping out and just making sure the guys felt comfortable, and there was one day we just needed Jimmi to jump in there. And he did, for that one little part. He was like, "Yeah, I'll jump in there and be the guy at the end." So it was cool.

So, can fans look forward to more collaborations between you and the Foo Fighters in the future?

McDonnell: I never know what's gonna happen. Dave usually does his own music videos, but I'd say never say never. I still talk a lot with Dave, and there's ongoing stuff. He's always doing something, so it's always impressive. I hope, honestly, that we actually get to make a part two of this movie, if we can. I already have ideas, and we'll see how everything goes. Maybe we'll be lucky.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to those looking to get into directing, whether it's short films, music videos or features?

McDonnell: I would say start off doing short films or music videos, or make commercials. I [went] to film school, and it took me into working as a grip, and then I got sidetracked working as a camera operator. But that also taught me so many wonderful things about the business and how to work with actors and crew. It gave me basically a really great knowledge of set etiquette. And then I got right back into what I came to L.A. to do, which was directing. So I say it's easier to accomplish doing music videos cuz they're shorter, and you can be creative.

Studio 666 is in select theatres February 25th, 2022.

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